Teaching the History of Media to Grade Two and Three: An Epic tale.
ARTICLE FOR SCREEN EDUCATION MAGAZINE (2009) BY JEFF LICENCE
Teaching history can be a slippery business – all those dates, people and places to remember, not to mention all that subjective information from a few long dead sources. Teaching history to seven and eight year olds is another world entirely, as their idea of long ago was before breakfast and an ancient artifact is Dad’s old CD player.
This is the mindset that I entered when I set out to teach my Grade two and three children all about the history of the media.
I teach a specialist Media program at Surfers Paradise Primary School. I see classes from Prep to Year seven once a week for approximately forty minutes and I try to teach them all I can about how the media informs, entertains, manipulates and influences our world.
For children in lower primary, I take a very broad perspective on media, defining it as ‘a way of sharing information and ideas with lots of people’. I also tell my students
‘the media tells stories’. These definitions open up a whole range of communication options familiar to the children, including books, comics, magazines, newspapers, posters, film, T.V, DVD, music, advertising, webpage’s, games, etc. The concept of audience is also implied in the definition.
This broad definition allows me to cross over a number of learning areas in my teaching, including Visual Art, Music, Dance, Drama, Media, English, Technology (design), I.C.T and S.O.S.E.
The children I teach vary widely in their demographic backgrounds but there is one thing they have in common – they are all very plugged in. An informal survey I conducted with my junior classes revealed that about a third of these seven and eight year old children had T.V’s, Computers and Electronic games in their bedrooms. Their talk and their play is often defined by the latest game or T.V experience and despite their apparent lack of disposable income, many of the children seem to have the latest game consoles, have seen the latest movies and are starting to pester their parents for a mobile phone.
For these young ‘digital natives’, technologies are quickly superceded. A combination of built in obsolescence, constant upgrades, quickly outmoded technologies and marketing tells kids that unless it’s brand new and right up to date, they are being left behind.
Coming from an era when electronic equipment lasted longer than a year and was repaired when it broke down, I wanted to give my students a sense of perspective about the long history of communication technologies and that their experiences in the digital age are a very recent phenomenon. So began our journey through the grand continuum of time and invention that has given rise to today’s digital marvels of communication.
My original intention was to start with the birth of photography and sound recording around the turn of the 19th century, however as I researched, I realized that each great technological innovation owed a debt to a previous idea, theory or invention.
So, I decided to go right back to the time of early civilizations, to when early hunter-gatherers walked the earth.
I shared with the children pictures of cave paintings from Kakadu National Park and Lascaux in France. I asked the children to imagine a great hunter living long ago who had successfully speared, skinned and butchered a great Wooly Mammoth (the greater the gory detail, the more they love it!). That night, he sits around a fire and tells his family the story of the hunt.*
Not satisfied that the memory of this great hunt should be lost, he gathers some coloured ochre’s from the river and sets about painting the memory of his great hunt onto a cave wall. This could be considered one of the first acts of representation, as this early human depicted his subjective experiences into form.
The children in the classes loved this story and were fascinated by the pieces of ochre found in a nearby creek that I used to paint their faces.
*Children of this age (and people of any age, I believe) are transfixed by good oral storytelling. Despite their heavy diet of imagery from T.V, Movies, games, websites, advertising, billboards etc, children still want and need stories that are not pre imagined and that call on them to create the imagery.
Over the following weeks we looked at a variety of indigenous cultures and discussed how they all shared their stories through oral storytelling, sculpture, painting, drawing and carvings. We learnt how all cultures have used music, visual art, dance and drama to recreate events of significance, to make sense of their place in the world and to understand and appease their gods.
We learnt about how our forebears sent messages using drums, gongs, bells, smoke signals, pigeons, arrows, runners and riders. For children born into the age of email, instant messaging and mobile phones, the concept of not being able to send a message and get an almost instant reply was mind-boggling.
Leaping through time, we moved into the age of the Sumerians and Egyptians and the concept of written text. It was comforting for children still learning to write that the first forms of writing were pictures.
I used a small piece of wet clay and a stick to demonstrate to the children how the Egyptians wrote messages before papyrus was invented. We viewed photos of tombs and the intricate hieroglyphs patiently carved into the walls. We talked about how pictographs and hieroglyphic messages recorded a moment in time that could be decoded exactly as written, rather than relying on the interpretation of storytellers. These written texts could also be stored and re read later, allowing cultures to begin recording their histories.
The children wrote their names in Hieroglyphic symbols and we explored the meanings of various Egyptian symbols. We had studied symbols and their purpose in an earlier unit and the children seemed to appreciate the logic of some of the Egyptian hieroglyphics while being mystified by others. The children also drew a family hieroglyph, showing their family, home and a favorite activity as a series of drawn symbolic depictions.
As part of our journey through the ancient media, we took a quick trip to Pompeii and marveled at the amazingly well preserved examples of ancient life and their use of the arts (especially mosaics) as a storytelling medium.
If I had more time, this would also have been a good opportunity to explore paper making as this development by the Chinese was crucial in allowing writing as a form of expression to flourish.
From the first forms of writing we moved to the development of hand written books. The children were surprised to learn that books were a rare and precious commodity and that being able to read and write was a skill reserved for the clergy and nobles. They were impressed by the detailed calligraphy that these early scribes achieved and shocked by the fact that it could take a scribe three years to complete a book and that would remain the only copy.
The children practiced drawing their own initials in the elaborate fashion of the illuminated first letters of these old books with some beautiful results. This process also gave them an appreciation for the patience and artistic skills of the scribes who produced these handcrafted books.
Lots more time and detail could have been spent teaching the children about the development of Latin, Greek and the modern alphabet, but times waits for no teacher.
Next, we took a big jump through time to Germany in around 1440 to discover Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press. Before showing the children a picture of the press, I made a big deal about how this machine changed the face of communication for the next 500 years, helping millions to become literate and that it equated in greatness with the invention of the computer and the internet in terms of it’s role as a communication technology.
Expecting the most, the children were unimpressed by the simple wooden press with metal plates and carved block letters. They were more impressed when I explained how it worked and that once a page was set out on the plate, it could be copied repeatedly. One of the children said, “It’s like a giant stamp machine!” Having laboured over drawing two ornate initials, the children could really appreciate how this “big stamp machine” sped up the process of printing.
We discussed how the influx of newly printed books, newsletters and newspapers offered people new ideas and gave communities a broader view of the world for the first time in human history. The printing press and the influx of information and ideas it brought, helped establish formal education and the birth of mass literacy. My students were surprised to learn that in these earlier times, few people were literate and only privileged children went to school. Some wished it was still so.
In the final installment of our tour of the media ages, we landed at the end of the nineteenth century, when developments in electronics, telegraph, radio, photography, filmmaking and sound recording technologies converged to establish what we know as the electronic media.
I shared with the children the first ever photograph taken by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce over a French farmyard roof. They weren’t too impressed by the picture quality, but were able to get a sense of the momentousness of this invention when we considered how, prior to the birth of photography, no identical image had ever been reproduced, and more poignantly for these children, no true life images of family existed.
We reflected on how the first sound recordings must have been highly emotional experiences for people hearing themselves, their loved ones and their music for the first time. We watched excerpts of silent Charlie Chaplin films and the comedy was just as fresh for my twenty first century seven years olds as it was when it came out eighty years before. We listened to a nineteen fifties radio episode of ‘Planet Man’ and tried to recreate some of the sound effects. I found pictures of early, bizarre looking TV’s with two inch screens and massive flywheels that looked more like gym equipment than Televisions. We laughed at the size of the first computers built by the English to crack German codes during the Second World War.
Slowly, as we drew closer to the present day, the technologies became smaller, faster and more capable and the children became less captivated. It seemed as though scratching a hieroglyphic into a piece of wet clay held more magic for them than learning about the telephone or the computer. However, if I’d asked them to swap their computer for a piece of papyrus, or their MP3 player for an old Bakelite radio, not many would have been willing.
Traversing the highlights of the ancient, print and electronic media through a 100 000 years of human history was a long journey for my students. An entire unit could have been built on just the electronic and digital media developments of the twentieth century, but I chose to save this for another term.
After recovering from our jet lag and culture shock, I gave the children a multiple choice quiz to assess their knowledge and understanding. Their results were very good, surprising me with what these young children could recall over the 2 terms of media lessons.
What I learned in teaching this unit was that despite our technological advances through the ages, storytelling and the arts have remained the conduits through which we explain, justify and glorify our existence. In the future, our ‘digital native’ storytellers will push the boundaries of new technologies and the arts to tell stories that our hunter-gatherer forebears and we could never have imagined.
Jeff Licence teaches Media from Prep to Yr 7 at Surfers Paradise Primary School and is a private consultant in the area of Primary Media, offering media related workshops to teachers, parents and children.
References: Geoffrey Blainey, A Short History of the World, Penguin, 2000
British site with lots of great info, games and interactive pages about the development of technology through the ages.
Old Time Radio – great source of free old radio shows on MP3.
Good info on T.V set design, development and marketing.