01 August 2011

Hulu in the Classroom: Building Literacy

I've never understood our classroom commitment to "the book," but, I've really never understood our classroom commitment to "the chapter book."

What skills are learned from reading a book which are not learned from watching a film? I'm not saying books are "bad," just asking, "why are they 'better'?"

And why is longer 'better'?

Is it because we think reading is difficult and miserable? ...and so the more we do it, the 'better people' we become - as old-time Calvinists would have it? "Work became toil; thorns and thistles frustrate our efforts. Fallen man seeks to glorify himself rather than his Creator through work..."

what about storytelling and comprehension can't be learned by watching this?

is longer really always better?

I began thinking about this a couple of days ago when @corriekelly - a reading teacher in Virginia - asked about short stories that might help engage young, and perhaps reluctant, readers. Stories she could read to them, they could read to each other, they could read to themselves.

I gave her a quick list, from Rod Serling's Twilight Zonecollections, the short work of Jack Finney. I sent James Howe and this collection and this website.

Also 145th Streetand Black Juice. Going Deep: 20 Classic Sports Storiesand The Bus People. There are lots of good choices, I'm hoping you'll add others in the comments here, but then...

But then I thought, why do we start with text on a page. I thought back to discovering books of those Twilight Zonestories after years of watching the show, and how much I loved "reading" them (or really, listening to them via audiobook, but I think that's the same).

And I thought that, as part of our effort to make kids want to read, want to write, we must first get them interested in stories, in wanting to know stories, and in how stories are told, and why.

And one great way to do that is to use short fiction in another medium - the short fiction of Hulu and other free sources of video - film and television.

Eerie, Indiana are brilliantly written kid-centered stories

where I learned to write -
WOR-TV9 back-in-the-day
There is really nothing about building reading comprehension, about building understandings of dialogue, pacing, fiction construction, theme, metaphor, plot, which you cannot bring to your kids as effectively through a half hour of video as you can through reading a novel. Nothing. Which means that, while your students might struggle so much with the decoding of alphabetic language (and more kids do struggle than don't) that the struggle to do that dominates all, with video all you have is the reason to read, the how to read, the art of reading.

It was fascinating one night, hanging on Twitter, to discover that Paul Oh of the National Writing Project credited the same source I do for learning how to write dialogue, watching the films on New York's Channel Nine's Million Dollar Movie. Watching what were already ancient movies way back when, we learned how dialogue sounded, when it was real, when it wasn't. Million Dollar Movie ran the same films over and over and over. It was like a course in film and writing. Is that better than learning it from Dickens? I don't know, but is it worse?

the best shows to start with might be ones that are self-contained half-hour episodes

This is not an advert for Hulu, many other video sources exist. You might expand to non-fiction by having your kids examine the always unintentionally funny stories of school long ago - our old educational films from AVGeeks (most of which are also on YouTube or Google Video).

it isn't just fiction...

You can also find these stories on many network sites, again on YouTube, or by borrowing DVDs from your library. Consider Everybody Hates Chris, Pete and Pete, or even old Disney and Warner cartoons... What's the story? How is it told? Why is it being told?

Nickelodeon's Pete and Pete remains brilliant...

I believe in reading. I believe in writing. But I also know that no one learns to read unless they really want to access what reading offers. No one learns to write unless they really want to share stories with others. We can't get kids there with boring readers, or chanting, or phonics for kids with no phonological awareness. But we can get them there by bringing stories into their lives, and helping them learn to work with those stories.

- Ira Socol


Pam said...

One of the best middle school literacy specialists I know who worked with kids who struggled as readers shared that she often preceded a short story, a book, or a poem with a video- could be nonfiction or fiction. She used United Streaming and other vid sources to do this. She once started introducing a story about bats and found that her kids (read mostly boys) only understood bats as a tool for hitting balls. They had no context for "knowing" bats as a mammal. She found a cool Nat Geo vid on bats and used that up front- said the kids were able to much better process the story as a result.

She shared that she pulled vid segments from movies when introducing history text- for example Glory and Gettysburg before the American Civil War unit started - she pre-taught background through vids before the kids began a unit in class that was more print-based.

We discussed that kids with risk factors need field trips, videos, images before they get to print - we have to put the pictures in their head to go with the language they hear and then see.

That's what middle class parents do. It's why our kids come to school with background knowledge. It's how we build language, expand understanding of the world around us, and link our personal worlds to the academic world. It's how we construct new understandings by scaffolding upon the foundation of what's known (Lev Vitgosky resurrected.)

When we create the breadth and depth of learning opportunities that support all children to access and acquire the knowledge they need to process learning work, then we do our job. This means all children in our care will be provided the tools they need for learning.

Wm Chamberlain said...

To me books, movies, audiobooks, songs, and even poetry exist simply to convey a story or message. It seems to me the best option for an individual is a choice that individual should make.

I love to read, but I also love to watch television and movies. I have a strong connection to movies and have poems that I love to quote. I am a consumer of information.

When teachers focus on one form to tell stories they are making a moral decision about what is "best". I am not really comfortable with that role myself. With the accessibility options we have thanks to digital tools there really is no reason whey we should always make these decisions for our students. (I do still believe that they need to learn to read as well as they are able, but shouldn't how the story is delivered be of less importance than the "truths" these stories hold for us?

Bogdan Pospielovsky said...

What about audio books? Reading out loud? All of these media are important in their own rate and are excellent at developing all the skills which are referred to in your piece BUT reading is reading. Our worlds are driven, increasingly by text. The single most powerful indicator of future earning potential of a student is to look at their ability to read complex text. Not understanding a complicated film, or an audiobook but reading a complex text. Reading uses the brain in a unique way because you have to take abstract signs and formulate sounds then words then meaning.
I work with individuals with a variety of disabilities from mild learning disabilities to profound cognitive challenges. We use many accomodations and technologies. When I was an English teacher it drove me crazy that other teachers would make students read shakespeare -- a play, a medium that was meant to be experienced not read -- do the test, then show the movie if they had time at the end of the unit as a reward.
Nonetheless reading is an invaluable, vital skill that needs to be developed in all students to the utmost of their abilities. To abandon reading in any student, because they can learn about character, and plot in other media, regardless of the student's challenges is profoundly irresponsible on the part of any teacher.

James Corbett said...

James Paul Gee is a researcher who has worked in psycholinguistics, discourse analysis, sociolinguistics, bilingual education, and literacy. He's currently the Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies at Arizona State University.

Gees has described video gaming as a new literacy “in virtue of the ways game design involves a multimodal code comprising images, actions, words, sounds, and movements that players interpret according to gaming conventions”

I've got Gee's book - "What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy" on my Amazon wishlist

Anonymous said...

Rod Serling... O man we need more Rod Serlings.

There's language and then there's language. I remember my brother had to do an English paper in high school, comparing two novels of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Vonnegut isn't really that hard to read, but he breaks all the rules, and so part of talking about Vonnegut is talking about his ability to mutate the form of the novel before your eyes. This is not something you'd catch if you watched 'Slaughterhouse 5' on video. So why teach Vonnegut if you're just going to show the video?

A recent example: http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2011/07/_did_it_seem_to.html

Teaching only the plot and the prescribed meaning of 'The Great Gatsby' seems more like indoctrination than literacy.

--htb, stealing a moment from his travels.

irasocol said...


I cannot disagree at all. Not just Gatsby, where I think not a word is out of place, not just Slaughterhouse 5, though George Roy Hill tried valiantly to capture the novel's form, but I think of a novel like Penn Warren's All the King's Men. His opening chapter is pure poetry, written to the beat of tires crossing tar strips at 60 mph. The films - and they are mediocre - can't convey a bit of that.

So, step one, get them interested. Step two, get them to the words in any way, book, TTS, audiobook which gives access.


I'm a huge fan of audiobooks, which are part of a different subject, universal design for learning. I do think reading is really important, but I will get kids "reading" any way I can. In the past 150 years American schools have never gotten more than 1/3 of kids really reading. What we do now is a complete failure.


Gee is an inspiration to me, because he understands and investigates what literacy means.

William, Pam,

Yes, Yes, Yes. And as Pam says, this "image and story first" is exactly what the middle and upper classes do for their kids while we're drilling poor kids on phonics and letters. It is also what the nations of Europe with the highest literacies do, with explicit reading instruction held off until at least age seven.

- Ira Socol