12 December 2015

Meddling in Media: A Term to Try

This year, I have been a little slack on updating my blog. However, it is with good reason! This year, I have the utmost pleasure in establishing a media studies department. It is challenging to set up and run a department single-handedly, particularly when compounded with technical issues that arise from working for a company that has very tight security and imposes extreme limitations - think 'exercise yard' rather than 'walled garden'. These restrictions have resulted in a school that has been protected from the advancements afforded in more liberal environments, which proves very challenging to a subject that requires access to online resources for success. In addition, the requirements of media courses now are much more demanding than my earlier experiences, particularly in technical aspects, meaning I am on as steep a learning curve as my AS learners in taking a subject for which they have no prior experience. All this compounds to formulate a very trying term.
However, I have always harboured a love of English and film - at the heart, it is narrative and the many different ways to weave it that interests me. I enjoy a well directed and edited film as much as a cleverly written novel and have little time for vacuous stories that do not spark thoughts and kindle emotions that burn long after the end credits roll or last page turns. Because of this, moving image, or a visual aspect of some kind, has always played a large part in my teaching of English. I am a very visual learner and incorporate as much creativity into my English lessons as I can. Many of my past posts evidence how I have used stop-animation, audio recordings, social media, and film to create narratives and depict meaning. Indeed, the best English departments incorporate some visual literacy into them - being able to read 'texts' is as universal skill as the idea of what a text is in today's digital world - and most curricula will (should) allow for some analysis of presentational devices at the very least. 

What is most disheartening and difficult however, is the perception of media studies as a subject. Often considered a soft subject, the true scope of the skills required to be successful in media studies is severely underestimated. It is, in my opinion, similar to English and English Literature - and then some. Having taught all three subjects I believe I have the authority to make that claim. Shared skills lie in decoding - yet the technical terminology is very different, and many learners who can analyse a poem struggle at deconstructing the micro elements of a moving image. In addition to being able to effectively read moving images, learners also have to have a thorough knowledge of key concepts and theories across a variety of media. Some critical theory is necessary in the study of Literature at equivalent levels, but there is no separate assessment to test your knowledge of it in relation to case studies you have undertaken as part of on-going independent research. Neither does English require you to create and maintain a digital portfolio that documents your entire learning process in a multi-media format, while demonstrating a clear sense of branding. Most crucially, whilst the best English students may be able to deconstruct the most technical poem and draft a cohesive and detailed analysis of it - they are not required to construct their own poem and then deconstruct it using theory and reference to the adherence or subversion of relevant codes and conventions.

And that is just for AS-level.

A2 learners also need to be able to develop graphic design skills, compose music, and design and build websites.

In addition to ensuring I write a curriculum that engages learners and addresses all the relevant skills, I have established a press corp at school for learners to report their own news via film and digital print, and set up a media studies blog and YouTube channel to house all the learning videos as well as completed work. With individual coursework blogs that require constant assessment and monitoring, maintaining these platforms is a lot of work. It is immensely, but demanding on time - particuarly when my posts need to model that which I require of my learners.

In short, media teachers have to be able to teach writing, analysing, filming, editing, website building, blog writing and maintenance, graphics, creativity, marketing, theory, research...

A soft subject indeed.

My experience goes back to my own GCSEs, where I studied media at school and then took many multi-media-based units in my degree. I also was lucky enough to have mentors during my PGCE who taught English and media, meaning I got to train and experience teaching in both fields. Once qualified, I taught film studies at a sixth form college in the UK. As mentioned earlier, however, what has changed massively in the subject, is the practical side. The huge technological advancements that have taken place over the past few years means that learners are required to create films of their own. There is no denying that, nowadays, it is easy to film - most of us have a device that allows us to record video. Indeed, many people do, just look at YouTube. Having a smartphone means anyone can make a film - not everyone can be a film-maker though.

Technological advancements, again, mean that learners are expected to do more than the average teenager with the latest smartphone. Editing, sound, camera work and special effects are all expected to be seamless and of a high-enough quality as to elevate their work above the everyday plethora we are subjected to. This is where I am finding myself on a steep learning curve; editing and publishing software are highly technical and allow for the creation of stunning work. However, learning their myriad tools is highly time-consuming. Again, this is different to teaching English; I may be able to analyse the craft of the writer but this doesn't mean I can write myself. Most often, English teachers are only asked to maybe proofread and rarely, if ever, craft their own verse. Yet, media teachers are expected to teach, plan, mark and craft - and, whilst this puts a lot of pressure on me, it is something I want to do in order to support my learners fully.

Teaching two other subjects in addition to all this, no matter how much they could potentially feed into media studies, is very, very challenging. Anyone who has ever taught a new syllabus will know. Anyone who has ever taught more than one subject will know. Anyone who has ever taught a subject that is not their area of specialism will know. I am doing all of this. It is tough. Everyday. But, no matter how much of a challenge it is, media studies is the thing that is keeping me going. It has been my sanity and saviour over the past term, as I truly look forward to every lesson. I enjoy researching and planning the learning. I am astounded by the progress being made. I am humbled by the creations made. It spurs me on to spend my winter break learning the many tools I need to be up to speed with. AND, as I find myself the proud owner of a brand new Canon 70D and a brand new 27" retina iMac, with a brand new subscription to the Adobe Creative Cloud suite, I have no excuse (exhaustion doesn't count). I have all the tools I need (and then some!) to make my own masterpieces. 

Part of the pressure comes from my own annoying perfectionism. I have tried to combat this crippling affliction by adopting the belief that I will never accomplish anything if I wait until I am perfect at it first. And so, endeavouring to put this into practice, whilst undertaking a recent film-making course with the National School of Film and Television and the British Film Institute, I came across the technique of pixilation.

The name "Pixilation" is derived from“Pixies”, the mythological creatures and not from computer pixels - hence the spelling. It is because it is deemed that the characters appear being controlled by pixies. This animation technique goes all the way back to the beginning of animation history when pioneer animator Norman McLaren made the short film Neighbours (1952) - see below - while working for the National Film Board of Canada. He used the technique to make people fly in the air without any green screen or fancy effects software.

Always looking for 'guerilla' techniques to combat the lack of equipment we have, this struck me as a way for learners to create some interesting special effects. Stanley Pickle (Mather, UK, 2010) - an award-winning short pixilation film - was shot entirely on a stills camera on two sets and two locations at the National Film and Television School (NFTS).

A2 learners have the option of creating a music promotion package. Again, Pixilation is an effective technique used in music videos - think Peter Gabriel's Sledgehammer. Here is a particularly great example:

Wanting my learners to be able to try this technique out and see if they at to use it for their coursework, I had a go. Straight away. I didn't wait to be perfect - I just tried it. That is how you learn, right? I made the below in about half an hour with the help of my beautiful assistant, who starred in the pixilation film and helped direct the stop animation. We used JellyCam, freeware that works for Windows and Macs, that we downloaded that morning. You can see that the quality is not great but it is free and a great way to practise until shelling out for something like, I Can Animate, which works on both Windows and Macs.

I look forward to getting this year under my belt. To having a full curriculum written and websites, blogs and YouTube channels established. To having developed many more skills. To have more equipment and more knowledge to help learners be successful. To having maybe chipped away at some of the walls that prevent our true success.

I will keep you posted.