Has storytelling changed it’s spots into pixels?

Has storytelling changed its spots into pixels?

Is this the new reading?

A question and discussion model to help young children 

understand digital media texts.

 by Jeff Licence

Originally published in Screen Education Issue 62, Winter 2011


Growing up in a digital world is a vastly different experience from the childhood many of us remember. One of the biggest changes for 21st century children is the amount of variety, access and time they spend plugged into digital media. In this article, I would like to share a series of questions and discussion points that early childhood educators can use to broaden their students understanding of storytelling (particularly visual storytelling) in the age of the digital native.

Digital Natives are the generation born after 1980 at the beginning of the digital revolution. 30 years later, we are seeing the second generation of digital natives coming through our preschools and primary schools. These kids have grown up in households more plugged in than any in history, and they’re taking to their digital lives like ducks to water. For some teachers, especially those born before 1980, jumping into the water with them can be quite daunting.

The pace of technological change since the 80’s has been phenomenal. Today, we and our kids can choose from a multi platform, high definition digital extravaganza of options – computers, the internet, mobile phones, IPads and IPods, live streaming, podcasts, digital T.V & Radio,Youtube, Google, wireless broadband – all these media options housed in a small device in our pocket – the smart phone. And all this technology is still in it’s infancy.

One of the issues digital technologies create for educators is the incredible access children have to information, imagery and entertainment. Primary and High school teachers are being encouraged to become ‘information managers’, helping their students navigate the myriad of information out there to arrive at their own interpretations and understandings. Many middle primary aged students understand the mechanics of using computers, internet searching and word processing programs, yet still struggle with information overload, often choosing the first link that Google presents. The challenge for teachers remains in helping their students synthesize the vast quantity and varying quality of information they get from the internet, choose reliable sources, and put what they have learnt into their own words, rather than simply cutting and pasting.

In early childhood settings teachers are rightly encouraging hands on, play based learning, with computers and technology playing a smaller, supporting role in their pedagogy. However, when their students pack their Dora and Ben 10 bags and go home, the media world looms large. They quite often plug into a D.V.D, D.S or Mum or Dad’s IPhone in the car before they’ve even left the school gate.

Ultimately, the digital and traditional texts our young students are accessing are still stories. The method of delivery has certainly changed and the internet and gaming has brought a new level of choice and interactivity, but digital texts are still authored and most have characters, plots, problems to be solved, themes, levels of complexity and (hopefully) a moral or deeper message to convey.

Helping children understand what these stories mean, how they are created and how they portray and reflect real life issues can aid a child’s understanding of relationships, develop empathy for others and use imagination to solve problems. Storytelling may have changed its spots into pixels, but it’s still integral to our lives.

A Question/ Discussion model to understand media texts.

Early childhood and primary teachers have always used texts (traditionally books) to initiate conversations, ask questions and develop teachable moments. One way of engaging and broadening children’s understanding of digital texts is through questions and discussions after reading, viewing or listening to a text.

This process can help to:

–  focus children’s attention on how words, pictures and sounds are combined in digital texts to create meaning;
–  reveal children’s understandings, feelings and ideas about the texts;
–  share some of your own thoughts about digital media;
–  clarify children’s misunderstandings, such as, “Is Ben 10 real?” or “Are all bad guys men?” or “Will that monster really kill us all?”;
–  give children a sense of perspective beyond the text to see the bigger context.

You might use these questions to initiate discussion after reading a picture book rich in imagery or after watching an animated DVD. Perhaps you have observed children in the playground “role playing” from a show or game. One of your children may talk about being frightened by a movie they saw on the weekend. You might be focusing on the visual texts of a particular author. Whatever the springboard, this is an opportunity to engage the children in meaningful conversations about the texts they are experiencing though the media.

 Character Questions

Q: Who are your favourite characters – why? What do you like about them?

Children will often identify with the qualities and actions of certain characters in the story – strength, nobility, desire for justice, image, good fighter, bad guys, etc. This can give you an insight into who they align themselves with and why.

Q: Are there any bad characters in the show? How do the storytellers show or tell you that they are bad?

  Here is an opportunity to discuss the use of camera angles, framing, music, sound  effects, facial expressions, make up, digital effects and other visual         conventions and character stereotypes used by storytellers. For example, bad guys in lots of children’s movies wear dark clothing, are usually            unattractive and have deep, scary voices. Low camera angles are often used to denote their power and dark, brooding music accompany them  wherever they go.

Activity ideas:

– Children can draw a stereotypical good and bad character from a favourite or made up text, referring to stereotypes of costume, facial expression, angle, body language and background. Older children can also write a backstory for the character, creating a context for a full narrative.

– Use your class camera to demonstrate with the children how the choices of angle, framing, lighting, costume and facial expressions can effect how we ‘read’ a picture and a character.

Narrative Questions

Q: What kind of things happen in the text?

Q: What was the best part? What was the worst/scariest/funniest?

These questions allow you and the children to break the narrative down into discernible moments/segments and provides an introduction into narrative structures of beginning, middle and end; introduction, problem, resolution and conclusion.

This process also creates opportunities for the children to talk about the text in their own words and express their understandings.

Activity ideas:

– Children reinterpret the text through drawings, drama and writing. They can choose a favourite scene to recreate or different groups can act out the beginning, middle and end of the story.

Authorship Questions

Q: Where does the text come from? Who made it?

An important step in helping children understand that digital texts are constructions, is reminding them that they are authored. When we read a book, we will read the name of the author and illustrator, but with screen narratives, the process of creation and authorship is much less obvious – the story just seems to emerge magically out of the screen. Having conversations with the kids about the contribution of filmmakers, actors, artists, animators, game designers, graphic and web designers and musicians can deepen the child’s understanding of the process and help allay children’s fears about the ‘reality’ of the show.

Activity ideas:

– Watch DVD special features and ‘Making of’ documentaries from animations and movies you have all watched together.

– Give (trusted) children a camera and ask them to document the day. You’ll be amazed by their perspective. Download the photos/video and assemble into a slide show and present it as your “Class Movie”. These movies are also great for parent information nights and culminating events to give the school community a picture of what happens in your classroom.

Opinion/ Feeling Questions

Q: What do you like about the text. What do you not like about the text?

These questions provide a chance for metacognition and reflection – children thinking about what they are thinking and revealing how they feel about the text. This makes their thinking visible and helps them separate fiction from reality.

Q: Are there are any characters or things that happen in the show that scare you? What are they? How do they make you feel? Is it real?

For little children, the world is very literal, so an incredibly life like animated monster in a movie or game looks, sounds and feels real. These discussions give the children a chance to reveal their fears and gives the educator a chance to assure them that the text is a created work of fiction.

Activity ideas:

– Ask the children to draw, act out or write about a scary or upsetting moment they have seen in a movie, game or website. Just about every child will have one. As the children create, remind them that these scary scenes are creations made by filmmakers and animators, etc. Children get a laugh about blood in movies being made from tomato sauce. If a child’s fear is based around real news, (and there’s no shortage of disastrous news footage) they need an opportunity to talk about and express their concerns.

You can give the children the choice of displaying or destroying the picture afterwards, taking it home to share with Mum and Dad, who may be unaware of their child’s responses to media. If the child is seriously traumatized by something they have seen, you may want to refer them to the school guidance officer.

Modern media is bypassing parents role as gatekeepers of certain knowledge passed on at appropriate times, so these activities can give children a chance to ‘debrief’ through art and self expression and be referred to specialist councillors if necessary.

 Advertising/Merchandising Questions

Q.  Were there any ads in the text? What are ads for?

            At the most basic level, children need to know that ads are there to sell them             something and will only reveal the good things about a product. Ask the children to             compare advertising with what the product delivers. Every child has a story of a             much hyped toy that either broke or didn’t deliver what was advertised.

Q: Is Dora the Explorer (or any other character) just on T.V? Have you ever seen that character in other places, e.g in a electronic game or website, as a doll, on a T-shirt, lunch box, etc? What have these other things got to do with the show?

These days, it is difficult to buy a children’s toothbrush that doesn’t have a Wiggles, Disney or Nickelodeon character on it. With so many media platforms available to them and a variety of licensed spin off products, large media corporations can maximise their earning potential through merchandising. If a child has seen the movie, visited the website, wants the DVD, D.S Game, Doll, Backpack, Yogurt and Pencil case, that’s brand recognition on a massive scale. The saying in advertising and branding is, “get them as a child and you’ve got them for life”.

Helping children understand that advertising and merchandising is a way for big companies to make a lot of money, may empower them to be more conscious about what they choose to pester their parents for (we can only hope!)
There is an environmental angle to all this too. More consumption means more merchandise produced, more resource and energy use, creating more waste. Is it ever too early for children to learn about ethics, environmental responsibility or being a smart consumer?

Activity ideas: 

– Using catalogues, children can sort and classify the varieties of merchandise derived from a particular character or show.

– Read the ‘Lorax’ by Dr. Zeus. This is a brilliant allegory about how the environment and society are affected by our need for ‘Thneeds’. Follow up discussion points and activities can be found at: http://www.seussville.com/Educators/lorax_classroom/educatorlorax_discuss.php

– For older children ‘The Story of Stuff’ is an online video that follows the materials economy through from resource extraction, production, distribution, consumption to  disposal. Go to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gLBE5QAYXp8

– Children can also design their own merchandise based on a favourite book, story or character they create.

 Purpose questions

Q: Why did they make this text?

Was it to share the story, to entertain, to educate, to make money, to advertise and sell merchandise, to enlighten future generations, or for fun.
Helping children understand the purpose behind the creation of the text creates a context for storytelling.
 Q. What message or big ideas do you think the author is trying to share?
Even though children can be very literal, some children are very perceptive, so it’s worth asking these questions. You may be surprised by the depth of their understanding.

Activity ideas:

– You can compare the same story, e.g Winnie the Pooh, in a variety of formats, e.g book, DVD, comic, game, audio story and compare how story elements are dealt with in each format to create meaning. What aspects of the story are lost or gained by not having sound, or pictures for example.

You wouldn’t ask all these questions in one sitting, but one question may propel you into a great discussion that illuminates the reason why stories hold such an important place in our lives. Some of the questions may seem too conceptual for the age of your children. As their teacher, you will be the best judge of where they are at, but it doesn’t hurt to throw them the occasional curly question. You might get some blank looks or you might be surprised at their level of sophistication. After all, they are the plugged in generation.

There is a line of thought that developing some of this textual understanding can take away the magic of story for children. For very small children, I believe this could be true, but as children’s interest in, and exposure to storytelling grows, it can add to the child’s sense of interest and understanding of what’s happening in the text and behind the scenes. It also helps children separate the fiction of the text from reality, which, as graphics and animation techniques become more and more realistic, may prove a valuable emotional life skill for our young digital natives.

Jeff Licence is an early childhood teacher, media education consultant, filmmaker and writer. He presents workshops for teachers, parents and children about the changing face of media and technology and how to find balance and connection in a plugged in world.

Jeff has presented for the C&K Association at their  Brisbane and Sunshine conferences and conducted several Parent and Community Forums through C&K. Jeff has acted as media consultant for Pengari Steiner School on the Sunshine Coast and has presented his media workshops at many early childhood and primary schools. Jeff has written for Screen Education and Kids on the Coast magazines and his blog is regularly updated with articles and information about children and the media: http://www.jefflicence.wordpress.com


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