Film about Edmonton’s Indigenous history no walk in the park

Originally published on UAlberta News.

Conor McNally above the historic Garneau Theatre

Conor McNally above the historic Garneau Theatre

Making a film isn’t a walk in the park, but Conor McNally (BA’15) may have found a way to make it about a walk.

The graduate from the Faculty of Native Studies was in his final semester when he was encouraged to go on a river valley walk with Education professor Dwayne Donald. Donald uses the walks to paint a picture of the Indigenous history of the river valley surrounding the University of Alberta’s North Campus and tell traditional Cree stories. The film, ôtênaw, which is Cree for “a settlement” or “a city”, gives viewers the chance to explore what Donald calls “the pentimento” or layers of Edmonton.

“The thing that really struck me was the delivery,” says McNally about Donald’s walks. “Presenting that history on the land, in the locations he’s talking about and interweaving it with Cree philosophies– I thought, ‘This is the best!’”

The experience inspired McNally to pitch the idea of filming the walk to Donald. McNally sees natural similarities between oral storytelling and film-making, which is why he thought it would make a perfect documentary.

“For Indigenous storytelling, there are limitations to the written word,” McNally explains. “A lot of it is being with people and people feel it differently as opposed to reading it in bed, wearing pyjamas. There’s more respect in person.”

The film, which is screening at Metro Cinema as part of April’s FAVA Fest, was awarded the festival’s Award of Excellence for “Outstanding Long-Form Documentary”.

ôtênaw: uncovering the layers of community

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Film still of Dr. Dwayne Donald

Once he got the green light, McNally leveraged some additional resources, such as a freezer full of 16mm film and grants from the Alberta Foundation for the Arts and the Edmonton Arts Council.  In ôtênaw, McNally superimposes different shots of the river valley and archival images over Donald’s storytelling. McNally explains that Donald’s narration lead the way for the visuals.

“Looking at the rough edit I had, I’d say ‘it’d be great if I went down to the EPCOR power plant and shot some stuff there’,” says McNally.

McNally utilized another valuable resource while making the film– his community and their artistic skills. With the help of a friend, he reused animated painted slides from another project to emphasize Donald uncovering layers of Edmonton’s history. He also brought in other film-making friends to help him collect extra footage.

“It’s weird to call it ‘my film’ when there’s so many other people involved in every step of it,” says McNally. “The day we filmed Dwayne’s walk, I had this whole crew of people helping. My parents were watching my daughter and they invited the team  over for chili after the walk.”

McNally notes that it was easy to connect with Donald beyond the film’s subject matter, bonding over their favourite hockey team, the Oilers.

“We had this moment where Dwayne thought he’d met me before and I was sure we hadn’t, but sometimes you meet someone and you think ‘We could be old friends’,” says McNally.

“I feel like I’ve learned so much from him, especially after watching the film a trillion times!”

The feeling of respect forged between McNally and Donald is mutual.

“Conor is a pretty cool guy and I admire him a lot,” says Donald. “He’s very passionate and committed to doing work that shows connectivities. To be a self-taught filmmaker and employ the sensibilities he does in this film– I love the music, the Elder’s words and the artfullness of it all.”

While Donald wasn’t originally comfortable with the idea of making a film about the river walks and storytelling he shares, he had the sense that something good could come of McNally’s initiative, and trusted him. McNally hopes that viewers take home a little more knowledge about their city and its story.

“All my films are about Edmonton in some way– I was born here and I’m not leaving anytime soon,” explains McNally. “I just want to raise awareness about these stories, because so many Edmontonians have no clue about any of this history. While Dwayne’s walks are free and open to the public, with film, one advantage is that it can be shown across the country. In that regard, I think it’s cool to tell very local stories and share them with a global audience.”


ôtênaw will screen at FAVA Fest on Wednesday, April 19 at Metro Cinema and at Vancouver’s DOXA Film Festival in May.

Finding a path through education

Originally published on UAlberta News.

Lydia Menna outside of the historical Garneau Theatre.

Lydia Menna outside of the historical Garneau Theatre.

A mosaic-tiled rotunda caps an Italian Neo-Romaneque building and staircases wrap around four giant cedar totem poles from the Nsga’a Nation. The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto is an iconic building, and a childhood visit there put Elementary Education professor Lydia Menna on a path that would lead her to become a faculty member at the University of Alberta.

“I still have my very first admission token from when I went to the Royal Ontario Museum in Grade 3,” recalls Menna. “That was probably the first time I’d been to a large-scale museum. I was impressed by the monumental size of it.”

Menna’s teaching and research in language and literacy focuses on multiliteracies, a field that recognizes linguistic diversity and a variety of modes of communication, including material culture. Before she joined the University of Alberta, she worked at the Royal Ontario Museum in educational programming and exhibits, then pursued teacher education at the University of Toronto.

After living in Southern Ontario for most of her life, Menna made the move to Edmonton for Fall 2016. From the banks of Lake Ontario to the Prairies, it’s been an adjustment, but she takes it in stride.

“It’s been an exciting experience to move myself into a new situation and environment,” says Menna. “There are differences that you notice– it’s a new curriculum and it’s a different province. It’s exciting getting to know the students and work with them. That’s the part I really enjoy.”

The students are also keen to work with her by helping her explore the city, suggesting festivals or river valley trails to check out.

“When you let them know you’re new to Edmonton, it’s interesting to see what parts of the city speak to them,” explains Menna.

Learning about Edmonton isn’t the only way Menna connects with her students. She’s guiding them as they become teachers. Seeing this growth is heartening for Menna.

“You’re working with student teachers who are developing their professional practice for the work that they’ll do with many classes in many years. There’s impact.”

The Royal Ontario Museum from Avenue Road and Bloor.

The Royal Ontario Museum from Avenue Road and Bloor.

Thinking beyond the classroom walls

While Menna learns about Edmonton from her students, and her students learn about teaching from her, she is cognizant of how educators can make the learning process engaging.

“Learning exists beyond the classroom walls,” explains Menna. “We need to ask what are the kids bringing into the classroom and tap into the classroom we want it to be so we make learning meaningful to them.”

In particular, Menna thinks about the students who import their backgrounds into the classroom, and how that knowledge can be leveraged for learning.

“These students bring in other languages and experiences from other countries,” says Menna. “These are rich resources that they take into the classroom. We want to make sure there is space for that and give the students a chance to realize that these are assets as opposed to deficits. When you think of yourself as a learner, some of the most meaningful experiences were the ones you likely felt connected to.”

As an educator, Menna practices what she teaches by using her personal history with museums to show student teachers how to think about literacy beyond the confines of the written word.

“There’s an assignment that I do with student teachers, similar to an “all-about-me” book. I would present mine on the same day that the students would share theirs. Mine was a piece of creative writing that was revolved around this admission token and the first visit to the museum and how it was a catalyst for a life-long love for learning and museums.”

“It’s funny the path you take,” says Menna. “When I look at my personal trajectory, I see that education was the stream that flowed through it. I see the connection with multiliteracies and mutli-modality. Everybody takes a different path to get there.”

Students and teachers rewired for the digital age

Originally published on UAlberta News.

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According to a Statistics Canada study, there is nearly one computer per student in Albertan schools. // Creative Commons

Pop culture is full of cyborgs like Darth Vader in Star Wars, the Borg in Star Trek or Neo in The Matrix. While cybernetic organisms are a mainstay of science fiction, Secondary Education professor Cathy Adams sees them everywhere, even in classrooms. Whether it’s the smartphone in your pocket or the computer you work on, Adams says technology is a cybernetic enhancement and it functions as an extension of who we are, how we live and how we learn.

When it comes to technology in the schools, there is no shortage of debate on the impact it can have on students or if it should be there at all. Adams, who researches digital technology integration across educational environments, as well as ethical and pedagogical issues involving digital media in schools, says it’s not a simple discussion.

Can you explain what you mean when you say students and teachers are cyborgs?

Adams: We tend to think of ourselves as autonomous from our technologies and our technology-textured environment; we are free to choose this or that technology and we alone decide whether we use it for good or for ill. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that technologies are not neutral, and that we have become the human beings that we are today only in and through our relationships to our technologies. Our professional practices, our political and cultural lives, and even our personal relationships are increasingly supported by and made possible by and through our technologies. We need to see that we humans are–and always have been–cyborgs.

Actually, most theorists don’t describe us “cyborgs”; the word in the academic literature is “posthuman”, which tries to take account of the socio-materiality of our situation. When I talk about teachers and students as cyborgs, I am drawing attention to this special human-technology relationship and posing some key questions about our future with technology.

Some parents are concerned about their children having too much “screen time”. How can an educator balance those concerns with integrating technology in the classroom?

Adams: There are different ways of approaching this question. One way is through media ecology. To see a classroom in terms of media ecology means to reflect on what a healthy, balanced and diverse media environment ought to be, especially in relation to different development moments in a young person’s educational life. Of course, most teachers often don’t have a lot of choice in the types of technology they have in their classrooms, but it is still possible to be thoughtful and deliberate in choosing when and how to use it and plan to do so in a way that is balanced and developmentally-sensitive.

When a particular technology is introduced into the classroom, we need to ask: what changes does that enact? Pencils, paper, desks and a chalkboard create a very different environment than one-to-one laptops and interactive whiteboards. Clearly new kinds of activities and ways of thinking are made possible in a new media environments. But there is a basic law of media that we all need to be aware of: every technology enhances one or more aspects of our lives, but it always comes at a cost.

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Dr. Cathy Adams

What do people find surprising about this concept of technology users as cyborgs?

Adams: In my course, EDSE 577 Pedagogy of Technology: Teachers and Students as Cyborgs, one of our exercises is a 24 hour technology “fast”. Before embarking on this, we talk about which technologies we are going to abstain from using, since it’s nearly impossible to be without any technologies. We’d have to be naked in a forest somewhere! We usually limit the fast to 21st century technologies, which means not checking email, social media or even looking things up on the web. Of course, the day tends to also be interrupted by phantom cellphone vibration and periods of boredom.

In the end, it’s not unusual for one or two of our class to not make it the full 24 hours–but that is learning. But overall, the message is clear: our lives are intimately entangled in our devices.

Technology is changing rapidly. How can educators keep up with limited budgets?

Adams: I’m a strong advocate for coding in Kindergarten to Grade 12 because computing science is core to much of the infrastructure deciding and supporting almost every aspect of our lives today. Just as we need to learn mathematics, chemistry, physics, and biology to understand our world, so too with computing science. I’m not talking about turning everyone into programmers, software architects or data scientists, but of developing this basic literacy for a more critically-informed citizenship. And I’m also not talking about students learning how to use digital technologies. I’m talking about learning some of the basic principles behind this powerful science, how software and hardware are designed and built, the special languages used to write software programs, about algorithms and why should we care about them, how to think computationally and more.

Some are surprised to learn that there is actually little need for any sophisticated technology or even a computer to teach some of the most basic principles of computing science. While these technologies are powerful cognitive tools that our children need to use early so they can leverage them later, there are also some good reasons for not including them in the early grades, such as developing basic literacies first and focusing on social development.

Digital technology is a very big ticket item in often very limited school budgets. We need to step back and consider when, how and more importantly why we are bringing each and every digital technology into the classroom, especially in the early years.

What are some ways educators can integrate coding into their classrooms?

Adams: Today K-12 coding is a global movement. On account of this, some excellent educational resources are out there and freely available to teachers and parents. I recommend checking out code.org for example: the online lessons are fun, current and easy to set up. Both children and adults will benefit from trying these out, and gain a new understanding of what is meant by “coding”.

A number of years ago, Tim Bell and his New Zealand colleagues developed a curriculum called Computer Science Unplugged. It consists of social games and simple practical activities for kids to try out and learn some of the basic principles of computing science without ever needing to touch a computer or look at a screen. These lessons will serve our children extraordinarily well in understanding and being able to critically assess our changing digital technology environment, now and into the future.


To learn more about Dr. Adams’ research about technology in  K-12 classrooms, check out her book Researching a Posthuman World: Interviews with Digital Objects or watch this interview with Global News Edmonton.

A year of stories: 2016 in review

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Top L-R: Leila Fanaeian and Jesse Kwasny in a waste audit, a spread of David Lewkowich’s graphic novels, Jason Wallin channels Norwegian black metal, Jerine Pegg shows off a tiny worm, Minecraft (cc), and a CTS class demonstrates their skills. // photos by k.barnes

Thinking back on the past year, it’s easy to conclude that I am lucky. I work with fascinating people, and I get to share their stories. Experiencing that kind of trust is humbling, and for that I’m grateful.

This year, the stories immersed me into the nitty-gritty details of waste management, introduced me to the concept of “math rappers” and gave me VIP access to a black metal and tattoo festival in Bergen, Norway. Despite this diversity, a few themes emerged: sustainability, pop culture in the classroom and hands-on learning.

Sustainability

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Jerine Pegg adamantly believes that for students to learn science, they need to do authentic science. This value resulted in her taking composting worms up to Nunavut for local students to continue learning about waste management, gardening and healthy eating. It also aligns with what the folks at Energy Management and Sustainable Operations did on their waste audit – they have to do real science to know if the university’s sustainable practices have buy-in from the campus community.

Read more about Jerine and her worms and how waste management works at the University of Alberta.

Hands-on learning

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“It was amazing because I didn’t know what to do, so I just started doing things.” – Jason Wallin

“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.” – Jamie Lambert-Brown

Whether it was future Career and Technology Studies educators constructing projects in a workshop, or faculty member Jason Wallin’s on-the-fly documentary film-making in Bergen, trying your hand at something new and having a great time doing it was incredibly inspiring, and something I need to try more often.

Read about Jason’s film-making adventure and check out the CTS students’ projects.

Pop culture in the classroom

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From math raps, Star Wars, Minecraft and more to graphic novels in teacher and librarian education, pop culture has a place in education. David Lewkowich uses graphic novels to help future teachers reflect on their own education experiences, while Elementary Education alumna Jessica Maloughney uses a variety of pop culture touchstones to bridge gaps with her second grade students (Lydia Menna and Jason Wallin provide expert comment).

Read about why David uses graphic novels and how Jessica connects with her students.

 

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

Originally posted on UAlberta News.

jason wallin

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.”