The Sights and Sounds of Literature
Sean Connors studies the way adolescents understand and interact with graphic novels, the more sophisticated successor to comic books. Chris Goering examines how students’ writing improves when English teachers ask them to analyze their favorite song lyrics and relate the lyrics to their personal history and other, more traditional forms of literature.
The two assistant professors of secondary education at the University of Arkansas focus in their research and instruction on two areas previously not given much credence as teaching tools in junior high and high school classrooms. For Connors, it’s the genre described as multimodal texts such as graphic novels that incorporate visual elements. For Goering, it’s song lyrics and music popular with teens, including rock, country and rap.
Connors and Goering both teach in the English education program of the College of Education and Health Professions. They also share a common belief in expanding the definition of what is valued as text.
“I read comic books as a kid,” Connors explained, “and I had a negative experience with a teacher who discouraged me. From an early age, I realized there were some forms of reading that were not acceptable and that some forms of writing were privileged. Teachers think some forms of literature such as comics and graphic novels are not ‘real reading.'”
Connors hopes to change that by teaching Master of Arts in Teaching students at the university how to use multimodal texts in their classrooms and by sharing what he learns with a wider audience through research publications.
“With graphic novels, teachers can have students discuss such literary elements as theme, symbolism and foreshadowing like in more traditional literature, and the discussion can go further into how the artist’s use of lines and color and white space gives the text more meaning,” he said. “There’s a language of these concepts my M.A.T. students can use in such analyses.
“We tend to devalue images because they appear transparent,” Connors continued. “You look at a picture and you ‘get it,’ you understand the meaning. But with a deeper understanding of graphic design, teachers can help their students learn more from the text.”
Novel Teaching Methods
Goering teaches M.A.T. students a lesson plan called Soundtrack of Your Life that he began using as a high school teacher in Kansas. It appealed to Goering because, as a high school student struggling to stay motivated, he was identified as a writer only after a teacher assigned an analytical essay about his favorite rock tune.
By connecting his love for music by such bands as Motley Crue and Warrant to reading and writing, this teacher gave Goering’s life new direction. He went on to teach high school English himself before earning a doctorate at Kansas State University.
Now, because their teachers learned the technique while in the M.A.T. program, some area high school students start the year with this assignment – first identifying pivotal events in their lives, then choosing a song to illustrate that event and writing about the two. Students are asked to share a part of what they have written with their classmates.
“Locally, Soundtrack of Your Life caught fire. Teachers take it and make it their own because their students react to it,” Goering said. “Even parents react positively. That’s the same experience I had as a teacher. It transforms the way kids think about English and writing. It takes something ‘lame’ in their eyes – writing a personal narrative – and makes it theirs; it involves their music.”
“One of our program’s stated goals is to broaden the definition of what is valued as text at a time when that can mean anything in the world,”” Goering said. “People we are preparing to become teachers typically come to us with a traditional sense of what text means.”
By traditional thinking, text is a poem, short story, novel or play.
“It’s all of those things, but we leave too many stones unturned when we take that comfortable view instead of also considering YouTube clips, bumper stickers, graffiti and gang signs,” Goering said. “As Brazilian educator Paulo Friere said, we must prepare to read the world, not just the word.”
According to Connors and Goering, when students analyze components in multimodal literary texts or the lyrics of a song on their iPod, they practice skills with these short texts that ultimately transfer to longer pieces such as Steinbeck and Hemingway.
In addition to their own prolific writing for research journals and scholarly books, each professor also engages with students and teachers on the Internet, Goering through www.LitTunes.com, an open-access educational outreach initiative that includes a Soundtrack of Your Life lesson plan, and Connors through a blog called The Chronic Reader on which he posted his reviews of literature for teens last fall. Archives can be accessed at youngadultliteratureark.blogspot.com.
Meaning Through Images
Students in Connors’ class use visuals and images as a learning tool for writing. Above is a visual compilation of this Research Frontiers story, formed by a tool commonly used by Connors himself, called wordle.net.
After he spent 12 years as a high school English teacher, Connors earned a doctorate at Ohio State University. His primary scholarly interest is semiotics, which is the study of signs, and specifically how symbols and words interact to provide meaning in texts that employ multiple literacy modes.
“The graphic novel has become one of the fastest-growing realms of the publishing world in the past few years for young adults and adolescents,” he said. “They have become much more sophisticated than the tales of superheroes I read as a kid.”
One example Connors gave was Marjane Satrapi’s award-winning Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, which describes the author’s childhood in Iran and her adolescence in Europe.
“What I’m looking at with my students is how images convey meaning and influence understanding of the story,” he said. “Most of them come through traditional English departments, and they struggle with this new definition of literature.”
University of Arkansas students planning to teach in a content area on the secondary level first earn a bachelor’s degree in that content area, such as English language arts, before entering the Master of Arts in Teaching program.
“Outside the school door, this is an incredibly visual world, much of it – such as advertisements – thoughtfully constructed to persuade the critical consumer,” Connors said. “In class, we look at visual texts, how they are designed and how effective they are in conveying meaning.
“Today’s adolescents are a visual generation,” he continued. “But even though they are being exposed to so many images, that doesn’t mean they think critically about them.”
In a case study Connors conducted with six high school students, he found the participants were active as they read and made extensive use of an available visual design to interpret the graphic novels, contrary to arguments that have historically tended to categorize works written in the medium of comics as failing to engage readers.
The students used visual cues such as perspective, recurring patterns, facial expressions and gestures, color, “visible sounds,” typography and spatial relationships to interpret the stories and add richness to their meaning. In addition to weaving the strands of meaning that individual semiotic resources conveyed, the students introduced information that was not otherwise present in the text to fill gaps between semiotic resources and interpret the larger scene, Connors wrote in an article prepared from the case study.
Pairing images with words in a discussion of literature reaches a broader range of students with different learning styles and abilities, Connors said. He and one of his students, Racheal Sullivan, teamed up to write an article about Sullivan’s experience when she adapted a digital writing project from Connors’ methods course and used it in a ninth-grade classroom in Fayetteville. The subject was Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The article rejected the notion that new forms of literacy stand in competition with traditional literacy and instead argues that students are best served when teachers introduce assignments in which different forms of literacy co-exist and inform one another.
Sullivan found that, when she assembled a digital text that included words, images, audio and music, it led her to think about teaching in ways she might not otherwise have done. She gave her students a similar assignment of working with a partner to compose a digital text in which they presented an interpretation of a scene in the book. She found that the project engaged them to an extent that previous writing assignments had not.
Soundtrack of Your Life gives teachers an effective way of getting to know their students at the beginning of a semester. Jessica Fay Sliger, a 2007 M.A.T. graduate, uses the lesson in her Spanish class for Spanish speakers at Rogers High School, Goering said.
“I suggest to teachers that they don’t assess Soundtrack of Your Life in terms of a graded assignment,” he said. “It is more valuable in setting up a writing community, letting the students and teachers get to know each other. It’s a very personal exercise, and grading – by assigning numbers to it – changes the power relationship that can result. Responding to it is critical.”
Teachers can use the assignment to note what particular areas will need to be emphasized throughout the rest of the year’s reading and writing assignments. The assignment offers catharsis for some students, not only allowing them to analyze past events but also to guide their choices and behavior in the future. That’s on top of improving their confidence in writing, Goering said.
“The assignment is useful for a lot of reasons,” he said. “Students usually feel better after doing it. It helps them let go of things.”
Music is a universal language and one that teenagers and adults find important, even critical, in their lives, Goering said.
“But to say that music is just motivational or that looking at lyrics is a merely an engaging way of beginning a class is really stopping short of the potential of the approach,” he continued. “Using popular music in English classes to teach any number of concepts can be traced back to the 1960s, but today’s students are going beyond, constructing messages by adding music to digital projects, and developing a musical intelligence as they engage in the new literacies.”
Goering teamed last year with Huang Wei, a visiting scholar from China, to more closely and critically analyze the musical choices being made for English teaching situations in Wei’s home country. Their study of the Chinese curriculum, which is under review as a book chapter, sought to understand, through a close cross-cultural reading of songs, lyrics and artists, how songs would be received in the teaching of English as a discipline or language while modeling a method to aid curriculum developers in making more strategic choices in songs and lyrics for instruction.
“Perhaps the take-away from this study was that songs are complex vehicles of communication and a curriculum choice can accidentally introduce subversive, negative elements into a culture by promoting certain songs and artists that carry an undertone that clashes with a culture, Goering added. “Rock and roll, at least in part, was formed by people rebelling against the status quo.”
With the support of the curriculum and instruction department, the college and colleagues across campus such as David Jolliffe in the English department, the two assistant professors hope to continue building the English education program with more and better students.
“Our scholarship has the potential to reach many new readers as well,” Goering said. “We believe teachers who have been in classrooms for several years are as interested in these new ideas as our students heading out for their first jobs.”
Photos by Russell Cothren