From shock to doc: Norwegian black metal on the big screen

Originally posted on UAlberta News.

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In Norwegian, “blekk” means ink. In exchange for their performances, the Blekkmetal festival gave the bands a series of tattoos from participating tattoo artists. While Wallin himself did not get inked due to filming requirements, his T-shirt pays tribute to one of Bergen’s tattoo studios. // photo by k.barnes

North of the 60th parallel, surrounded by fjords and nestled between mountains on Norway’s southwestern coast, lies the rain-soaked, freezing-cold city of Bergen. On the harbour sits a massive, old sardine factory that’s found new life as, among other things, a large performance space. Inside, dozens of tattoo artists from around the globe ink patrons who are waiting for the evening’s performances.

In the midst of it is Jason Wallin, a Secondary Education professor from the University of Alberta. He stands out from the crowd with his video camera and boom mike, interviewing attendees about the city and its connection to its most famous musical export–– black metal.

Wallin is part of the four-person, all-Canadian production crew that filmed a documentary about the one-off Blekkmetal Festival in November 2015, which celebrated the origins of black metal music in Bergen. The documentary, Blekkmetal, focuses on the rich histories of Bergen, the music and the people who make up the scene. With its fast, dissonant guitars, harsh vocals and dark lyrics, black metal and its fans have been the subject of much stereotyping–– something Wallin and his colleagues saw on their first day in the city.

“When we got to the Airbnb, the host looked at us and what we were wearing and said ‘Oh, are you here to do a story on Count Grishnackh?’, which is an alias of Varg Vikernes, an avowed neo-Nazi who is infamous for the burning of Norwegian stave churches and for murdering a fellow black metal musician,” Wallin recalls.

“But Blekkmetal wasn’t about rehashing that history. It was more a celebration of an ethic and aesthetic often hidden in orthodox culture. So much of society is predicated on this idea of compulsory happiness, for instance. Black metal takes a more nuanced look at reality through its music and images as to account for a darker image of life.”

Returning to the roots and celebrating the ethic

Blekkmetal film poster

Blekkmetal will be screened at Metro Cinema on Tuesday December 6, 2016 at 7 p.m. alongside Heavy Metal Parking Lot. Following the screening there will be a Q&A with Wallin.

Although it might seem unconventional for an education professor to play an active role in a documentary about black metal music on the other side of the world, Wallin’s interest in metal isn’t a recent development. Growing up, he developed an ear for the genre through his brother’s love of hair metal like Van Halen and RATT, and power metal like Scorpions. Later, during his graduate studies, Wallin started expanding his musical horizons into other subgenres from doom metal to death and black metal. For Wallin, the music became a way to destress, a pattern he sees in his fellow fans.

“A lot of people say, ‘when I listen to black metal music, it helps to diffuse the all stress that I have’,” says Wallin. “It’s a release because it does it for you. Undergoing the music is a kind of catharsis, for some.”

Eventually Wallin started bringing his interest in metal music and culture into his teaching and research as a faculty member focusing on media and youth culture in curriculum, and through his involvement with Grimposium, a touring metal festival and conference. It was fellow metal studies scholar and Grimposium colleague Vivek Venkatesh who invited Wallin to join the documentary production crew alongside mobile media scholar Owen Chapman and music video director David Hall.

While he had intimate knowledge on the subject matter, making a documentary was new territory for Wallin. With the tight turnaround between the invitation to document the festival and the crew’s departure to Bergen, there wasn’t time for more than a crash course on filmmaking –– Wallin had to sort it out on the fly.

“It’s fortunate that so much can be done in post-production,” jokes Wallin.

“It was amazing because I didn’t know what to do, so I just started doing things. I’ve watched enough film that I think I understand how one might compose a shot. I had so much fun doing it. From my sabbatical year, it was my favourite thing I’ve done, maybe in my career.”

Wallin’s trial-by-fire contributions to the documentary didn’t go unnoticed by his colleagues. Not only does Venkatesh credit Wallin for being a “particularly calming presence” during the stress of filming, but he adds that Wallin’s work on Blekkmetal is highlighted every time the film is screened.

“What Jason brought to the table, which was particularly interesting, was the way in which he conducted interviews with attendees of the festival and members of the scene,” explains Venkatesh.

“He took his camera and microphone and pretty much placed it in people’s faces and asked them a series of questions about how their conception of the music was tied to the physical location of the festival–– what the city meant to them and what it meant for black metal. The variety of the responses he got for the first 20 minutes of Blekkmetal set up the film so well and it’s really thanks to Jason’s very unique ability to get people to speak about these issues and get them to open up in a way that they might not normally feel comfortable doing so.”

Capturing the mythos of Bergen

Learning the art of filmmaking wasn’t Wallin’s only lesson while in Bergen. He also gained a deeper understanding of the city, its people and the local black metal culture. While he acknowledges that a documentary crew’s presence inherently complicates the presentation of the subject matter, Wallin suggests that Blekkmetal explores a more human side of black metal.

“Some of the documentary work and articles written about black metal focus on a particular kind of image, focusing on the violence,” says Wallin. “That’s not to say that it’s not there, however one thing that really came out of Blekkmetal was that the people who partake in it, it’s not about that for them. It’s about a connection to a particular kind of aesthetic that does something for them.”

Another aspect the filmmakers investigated was the range of the fan base and the fluidity between genres like black metal, electronica or opera. Wallin recalls visiting the Bergen Symphony and discovering that one the employees who works the rigging was also in a band performing at the festival.

“The scene is much more collaborative in terms of celebrating what is coming out of it than it is about maintaining rigid territories,” says Wallin. “Even people attending weren’t producing the signs of being a ‘metalhead’ or all the stereotypes that come along with that. The scene is much more diverse.”

That diversity extends to the performers as well. Wallin cites Ivar Bjørnson, from the band Enslaved, who does curriculum work in schools on runes, some of which are found in black metal imagery. Bjørnson teaches students about the runes, their meaning and their connection to a place as a way to rehabilitate a type of wisdom that’s been lost. Bringing the knowledge found in black metal to the classroom is also something Wallin strives for in his own research.

“I see black metal, and what it produces, as a conceptual resource for rethinking education because it is so educative, not in a standardized sense,” Wallin explains. “It shapes you and informs the way that you see things, and that’s crucial to how we navigate reality and our ways in the world.”

Wallin says he would like to work on more film projects about black metal and the scene in the future. In the meantime, he hopes that Blekkmetal audiences take home a different perspective on the relationship between Bergen and black metal.

“Bergen is a germinal place for black metal, and why?” says Wallin.  “It leads people back to the importance of ecology and how places can inform upon what gets enunciated. And I hope people enjoy the documentary. It’s a spectacle. It’s immense. It’s loud and all these great things about black metal music.”


Blekkmetal will be screened at Metro Cinema on Tuesday December 6, 2016 at 7 p.m. alongside Heavy Metal Parking Lot. Following the screening there will be a Q&A with Wallin.

Comics draw out classroom discussion of hate speech

Originally posted on illuminate and cross-posted to UAlberta News.

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Illustration from Learning to Hate: An Anti-Hate Comic Project (2016)

For some students, school can feel like the furthest thing from a “safe space.” As anyone who has gone through the K-12 system can attest, school is sometimes a site of persistent anxiety and antagonistic social interactions that can follow students from the classroom to the home—especially in the age of social media.

“The way that hate lives with students and the way it can be such a crushing and suffocating force—it becomes all consuming,” says Jason Wallin, associate professor of curriculum and youth culture in the Faculty of Education’s Department of Secondary Education.

“Forget all the other parts of school. I remember enough about being a teenager to remember that much.”

An anti-hate comic project

Hateful attacks are particularly damaging when they are made against a young person’s racial, cultural, gender or sexual identity. The large, instantly accessible audience provided by social media platforms makes things that much worse.

“What has become common sense on social media often carries underlying messages of discrimination and alienation,” says Wallin. “It also has the staying power to last forever. If someone attacks you online, there is an archive of it that can be brought up at any time. There are no take-backs.”

Although many of these conflicts take place outside of the classroom, Wallin wants to help teachers move the conversation about hate and hate speech into the curriculum with a graphic resource for teachers. Learning to Hate: An Anti-Hate Comic Project is designed to help pre-service and practicing teachers discuss tough topics such as cyberbullying, microaggressions and harmful labelling with their students.

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Illustration from Learning to Hate: An Anti-Hate Comic Project (2016)

The comics are a part of Project Someone, an anti-hate pedagogy initiative based at Montreal’s Concordia University that involves more than 20 collaborators across Canada.

After Wallin’s experience with a graduate course focusing on graphic novels, he knew he wanted to incorporate comic books into this project.

“Comic books are a successful medium in terms of reaching people with its ease of communication,” Wallin says. “Anyone can pick it up and engage with it. And that’s what we wanted for these comics––we wanted them to produce questions. That was our major intent with these comics––to create resources that would catalyze conversation around how hate lives and is encountered by youth today.”

Research produced by students in another one of Wallin’s graduate courses was ultimately translated into comic book format by artist and Faculty of Education doctoral student Jessie Beier.

“The goal was to really focus on youth experiences and what youth have to deal with daily in terms of small instances of discrimination and hate,” Beier says. “I worked with lots of different formats––for some I created infographics, some are like comic book pages, there’s a Mad Magazine-style fold-in. I drew on a lot of popular culture and things I see online, what I think youth are engaging with, the formats they’re familiar with, turning those on their heads so people have to look closer and see that those platforms are maybe not so neutral.”

Wallin plans to use the comics in his classroom with his undergraduate students in the hope that these materials will inspire the next generation of teachers to find their own ways to start the discussion with students about hate speech.

“These teachers don’t necessarily need to use the comics,” he says, “but they can take on their own process as a way to begin to uncover a curriculum that is often quite hidden in schools.”

Watch an interview with Jessie Beier and Jason Wallin of University of Alberta about Learning to Hate: An Anti-Hate Comic Project on Vimeo.

Embracing math raps, Minecraft and Star Wars in the classroom

Originally published on illuminate

Minecraft

Created by Mojang, a games studio based in Sweden, Minecraft is described as a “sandbox video game”, allowing the player to choose what, when and how they want to approach the available choices in content. Activities in the game include building, exploration, resource gathering, crafting and combat. Source: minecraft.net.

Step into Jessica Maloughney’s (BEd’11) Grade 2 classroom at St. Patrick’s Community School in Red Deer, Alta., and you may be reminded of a six-year-old’s bedroom. Minecraft posters decorate the walls, Lego figurines are tucked around the classroom, and collections of Star Wars and Frozen books populate the bookshelf.

These aren’t just classroom accessories. They’re part of Maloughney’s teaching practice. When she teaches her 18 students about math, for example, she might get them to channel their “inner Kanye” with backwards caps, spouting rhymes about numbers as “Math Rappers.”

“The basic foundation of my job as a teacher is communication,” says Maloughney. “To communicate with a student, you need to meet them where they are. They aren’t going to come up to your level at age six to meet you. You need to enter their world.”

Bringing ‘home’ into the classroom

For Maloughney, entering the world of her students means engaging with a wide variety of realities. More than half of her students speak English as a second language, and three are absolutely new to to the language. Many of the children are from low-income families and live in a variety of home situations. They have different medical concerns and a range of behavioural disorders.

Maloughney says integrating popular media her students enjoy into her classroom is one of the best tools she has available to connect with them and help them tackle challenging circumstances.

“The classroom is their home away from home,” she says. “For some of them, this is the most stable place that they know, and seeing things that they choose or enjoy, it makes them feel more welcome in our ‘classroom-home.’”

Jason Wallin, a professor in the University of Alberta’s Department of Secondary Education who studies media and youth culture in curriculum, agrees that breaking down the walls between a student’s school life and life outside the classroom should be a major focus for teachers. When a teacher considers education as existing in a different sphere from the lives of students, students can feel alienated.

“We take this really important youth identity component that’s developed outside of school, and we largely divorce that from the classroom where we have more formal curriculum concerns,” says Wallin. “When a teacher begins to break down the false dichotomy between the informal curriculum of popular culture and the formal curriculum of the school, you’re dis-alienating the students from those identity constructs that they form elsewhere, and they can bring them into the classroom itself.”

The language of pop culture

One major potential source of alienation that concerns Maloughney is the language barrier faced by her English language-learning students. When she started integrating popular kid-friendly movies, video games and fictional characters into her teaching, she saw a marked improvement with these students.

“It’s a scary thing to come to a new country and sit in a classroom where you are just meeting the other kids and you don’t know the language,” she says. “It’s amazing to see these kids who have been in Canada for a month who can’t tell you the names of basic objects in the classroom, but they can quote things from The Lego Movie. When you see their faces when they recognize something, it’s special.”

Lydia Menna, a language and literacy professor in the Department of Elementary Education, is not surprised that Maloughney’s English language-learning students pick up television, game or movie references in English more quickly than they do some of the formal curriculum. Teachers need to provide multiple entry points into literacy learning so students can see themselves as readers and writers, Menna says.

“That whole idea of connecting with students’ interests—diverse literacy practices and cultural experiences can make for more meaningful learning,” explains Menna. “As a learner, often your most memorable learning experiences are the ones that connect to something that you are interested in.”

Bringing popular stories and characters into the classroom also makes social interaction with English speakers easier for the English language learners.

“For them, being able to gauge what their classmates are interested in and realize that it’s the same things they enjoy, it gives them a starting point,” Maloughney says. “It also gives them more language, since they might know the references in their language, but not necessarily in English. Hearing the reference in English helps them pick up the words for concepts they already know.”

Flipping the teacher-student hierarchy

All young learners can benefit when the popular culture they draw from to construct their identities outside the classroom is treated as valid curriculum content by educators, says Wallin.

“It’s important as educators that we attend to this complex life-world of students outside of the school and say ‘This matters and is deeply relevant to what we should be doing in the classroom,” he explains.

Maloughney agrees. “Kids are so much more ‘with it’ than people give them credit for. At six years old, a lot of them already understand that the adults in their lives don’t want to hear about how they got to the next level in Minecraft, or how they drew a picture of Iron Man because he’s their favourite Avenger. It’s sad. But if you give them the opportunity to talk about things that they are passionate about, they are over the moon.”

When teachers take their students’ interests more seriously, it also presents the opportunity for teachable moments where students can start questioning their consumption of media and develop critical thinking skills.

“As adults, we’re sometimes out of touch with children’s culture, and it’s important to understand the way things are marketed and how those forms carry ideological meaning,” says Wallin.

“Adding youth and pop culture into your teaching is not going to cost you more time, energy or effort,” says Maloughney. “Students know what they are passionate about and they will happily take their turn to be the teacher and teach you about something that maybe you don’t know.”

From the comic book store to the classroom

Originally posted on illuminate. Written by k.barnes and m.henderson.

A selection of graphic novels from Education professor David Lewkowich's collection. photo by k.barnes

A selection of graphic novels from Education professor David Lewkowich’s collection. photo by k.barnes

Once thought of as a niche medium appreciated mostly by stereotypical middle-aged comic book collectors like Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons, the graphic novel has been steadily moving from the fringes to the mainstream since the late 1980s.

In anticipation of Readin Week 2016, we sat down with Gail de Vos, professional storyteller and long-time sessional instructor at UAlberta’s School of Library and Information Studies, and David Lewkowich, assistant professor in the Department of Secondary Education, to talk about this relatively new hybrid of text and image and its value as a medium for teaching and research.

De Vos has taught a course focused on graphic novels since 2001. Her favourite character is Baba Yaga, a witch from Slavic European folklore who is depicted as a villain in the comic book series Hellboy. Lewkowich, whose research interests include literary theory, young adult literature and cultural studies, currently loves the character Marlys Mullen, created by cartoonist and author Lynda Barry, because Marlys is able to look through the complexity of her older sister’s experience and tell a joke.

Responses have been edited for length.

Faculty of Education: Why did you start integrating graphic novels into your teaching and research?

David Lewkowich: It is important to me, especially on the first day of class, to help my students understand and break down the view that the “teacher” has a wealth of knowledge. Instead, it’s about creating a relationship and space where the teacher is a beginner every day. I find that comics and graphic novels allow an avenue into this world view.

Comics and graphic novels make us all beginners. There is no one right way to read them, as no one has been formally schooled in how to read comics.

Gail de Vos: As a professional storyteller, I began reading graphic novels and comics because of my research into reworkings of folktales in pop culture. After reading a lot of them, I realized that they are the closest print medium to oral storytelling and folktales. I was truly captivated by this whole idea, which led to my research and teaching on the subject.

Faculty of Education: How does the medium help you interact with students?

Gail de Vos: I often think about the importance of self-interpretation, which is something David has hinted at earlier. This is all about learning to be confident—that there is no right or wrong way to read this. Once a book is in the public domain, the author and illustrator, or sometimes just the illustrator, no longer have control over how the book is read. It becomes about how the reader responds to the illustrations. I often start my courses off with wordless graphic novels, so that there are no words to show the readers where to go.

Often people don’t know how to start reading a graphic novel. They want a “how to read graphic novels” explanation because of their previous exposure to text-based books. This is especially true when you start reading wordless graphic novels.

David Lewkowich: I agree with Gail. There is something about how we have been schooled to read language in that we think that it’s a solid structure. There is something about the interaction of words and images, and images alone, that allows us to go more inside ourselves with our reading. It allows us to inspect the connections that we are making with the text.

photo by k.barnes

photo by k.barnes

Faculty of Education: What are the different themes that you seek to explore with students?

Gail de Vos: Self-discovery is a major theme that I’m interested in. It can be found in all forms of literature, and it’s a theme that is repeated over and over again in graphic novels.

David Lewkowich: I love graphic novels that tend to explore themes around love, adolescence and memory. These are all aspects of human existence, where it’s all about unanswerable questions and how can we allow the text to play with us.

I’m also interested in how our past experiences in school and our early experiences with teachers can impact a teacher’s future teaching. Words alone don’t seem to fully capture the emotional complexity of these ideas or themes.

Reading graphic novels allows us to explore our emotional past in a way that words can’t. I know that when I set foot back in a high school working as a teacher, I dealt with a lot of insomnia and my own emotional frustration, both of which I didn’t expect; I see that happening again when I look at my students. Working with graphic novels allows me to help support students in their own emotional discovery.

Faculty of Education: What advice do you have for educators, librarians and other information professionals looking to integrate graphic novels into their work?

Gail de Vos: Read them for yourselves. For every class I teach, regardless of the content, I put graphic novels on the reading list. I also suggest using wordless graphic novels so students take time to appreciate the illustrations themselves. It helps students become more observant.

David Lewkowich: Encourage students to dwell on the page. It can be hard to slow down on the page, but when you do, you notice things that you may have thought were only tangential. Sometimes it’s these tangential moments that can add a lot more to the text.

Comics create a level playing field and allow for discussion where no one possesses the knowledge as to what is the meaning of the text and everyone can come to their own conclusions.


The University of Alberta is proud to be a partner of Read In Week Edmonton 2016. The purpose of Read In Week is to create a greater awareness of the importance of reading. Historically, the event has successfully promoted the school as an important place for the development of lifelong literacy. Read In Week Edmonton runs from October 3-7, 2016. Visit the website for more information.

Undergrad students gain a new perspective on education research

Originally published on UAlberta News.

Two undergraduate Elementary Education students were recipients of the University of Alberta’s undergraduate summer research awards, providing them with chance to work alongside professors in their fields for four months.

Both Marcus DeWitt and Stephanie Shannon received the Roger S. Smith Undergraduate Student Research Award, enabling them to gain valuable experience conducting academic research while working with faculty members on their projects.

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Working with math games: Stephanie Shannon

Stephanie Shannon, a second-year Education after-degree student, worked with Janelle McFeetors on a research project that uses games to help teach elementary school students learn math. The project showed Shannon that math learning experiences don’t need to be limited to the classic worksheets that many students dread.

“Kids can learn from hands-on experience or simple games,” says Shannon. “The games approach goes a lot deeper that you think it would. In the future, I would definitely incorporate games into the math-learning experience in my classroom.

Shannon started the summer by going out into a grade 4 and 5 split class, working with the students while they were playing the games. Her insights into the students’ changing mindset caught McFeetor’s attention.

“After we completed a classroom intervention and conducting interviews with grade 4 and 5 students, she pointed out how the students’ productive disposition grew as they were learning,” says McFeetors.

“What was interesting is this coincided with professional articles I had recently read identifying this as an under-developed idea in mathematics education.”

Later in the summer, Shannon moved into data analysis and transcribing notes. In the final month, Shannon tried her hand at a new skill– website design for learnmathwithgames.com. Not only did the project help Shannon develop new skills and ideas for her to use in her own future classrooms, and open her mind to possibility of doing more academic research in the future.

“This experience was  much different than what I experienced when doing research in my first degree, she says.

“With this project, I went to the classroom and met students. You get to have that personal connection with them, but you’re still doing research. It’s a great feeling to know that they aren’t just subjects. You actually get to know them and see how they have evolved.”

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Constructing timelines: Marcus DeWitt

Fourth-year Education student Marcus DeWitt spent the summer working with Lindsay Gibson on a project that saw grade 11 students creating interactive timelines about Canada’s history using flash cards. DeWitt applied for the research assistantship in hopes the project would give him an idea of what future opportunities in academia might look like.

“I’ve considered going onto do graduate work after I’m done my undergrad and I thought this would be a good introduction while giving me good experience,” says DeWitt.

“I’ve gotten to see data collection first hand– how you’d analyze, interpret and record it. It’s a pretty big part of the research-aspect of graduate work.”

On top of seeing how data collection works in an research project, DeWitt also learned more about students’ perceptions about Canadian history and how that impacts their engagement with the curriculum.

“At first it catches you off-guard, but after hearing 30 grade 11 students say the same type of thing, you realize the misconceptions they might have on certain aspects and topics,” explains DeWitt.

“You can definitely tell if the kids were on that day when you listen to the audio recordings. If it’s an issue that hits close to home, it’ll spark a ten minute conversation.”

Throughout the project DeWitt put his keen attention to detail to work, impressing Gibson.

“He identified key deductive codes from the interviews which has been very helpful in the data analysis process,” said Gibson. “His insights into the progression of students’ thinking as the study developed were very beneficial and have helped me develop next steps for this pilot project.”

Seeing the project’s gamification of Canadian history and how students engaged with it has influenced how DeWitt plans to engage his students.

“I’ve been thinking about Dr. Gibson’s approach to this project and I think it’s a great idea how he took a topic that a lot of kids might think is boring and made it into a challenge of sorts and make it fun,” says DeWitt. “It’s definitely something I’d look into doing in my classroom in the future.”


The Roger S. Smith Award is open to continuing undergraduate students. Information on how to apply can be found through the Registrar’s Office.

A Eulogy for Rocco — Sometimes I Think

My friend Thomas wrote this beautiful piece on his pup Rocco. Grab the tissues and read on.❤

It’s taken me a while to be able to write anything about Rocco. On top of a profound sense of loss, something else rendered me inarticulate: some form of what I can only call trauma. Rocco’s last 24 hours were awful. I watched helplessly as seizure after seizure wracked his failing body. He fought so […]

via A Eulogy for Rocco — Sometimes I Think

Students get creative in summer course

Originally published on UAlberta News.

When asked to bring their favourite projects for the group photo, instructor Don McPherson said that all the students were his favourite project.

When asked to bring their favourite projects for the group photo, instructor Don McPherson said that all the students were his favourite project.

This summer a group of future and current Career and Technology Foundations teachers honed their skills in the workshop.

The course, taught by Don McPherson, gave students hands-on experience in developing projects they could take back to their classrooms. From making end tables to gumball machines, this was a new experience for some.

“I’ve never touched any construction or woodwork, so this is a lot of firsts for me, but I’m having lots of fun and making a lot of cool things” said Jamie Lambert-Brown, a foods teacher.

More than having fun, the students are also learning how to teach

“I’ve learned how to make meaningful learning opportunities,” said Ryan Siemens, a future mechanics teacher.

“In this course, we learned how to connect projects to occupations, as well as other curriculum, so the students are learning, interested and engaged.”

Check out the photo gallery below to see more of the students’ work. 

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