The SLAV conference was held this year at Federation Square, so I went in on our much maligned train system (punctual, clean and swift) and then had a very nice breakfast at Time Out until it was time to make my way up to ACMI Cinema 2. I am still not entirely convinced that Federation Square is a success for events like these – although the cinema is a much better venue than VIT in terms of being able to see the speaker and all of the screen, it has a strange disembodied feel about it. The lighting is a bit dim for taking notes, and there’s definitely something wrong with the air conditioning. I was not the only one nodding off, and not from boredom! The same thing happened at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival earlier this year, even when some of my favourite writers were on stage. Elsewhere the informal spaces for gathering and chat don’t seem to work at all, and there simply aren’t enough toilets for large numbers of women.
Anyway, the theme was Re-imagine Other Worlds, very appropriate for teachers of literature. However, much of the focus was more secondary orientated than last year. Although it was interesting, I often found myself thinking how lucky I am that I don’t have to teach library lessons to unwilling year 8-9 students!
The conference began with an introductory address called Setting Literature Free: Story Lines by Linda Gibson-Langford. Linda talked about how boys in secondary school don’t want to listen to stories – they will fidget and disrupt even a really good book like Brisinger. Linda quoted research by Schnog (2008), telling us that if we listen to the ‘voice of the boy’ we will realise that they feel no connection to the library or the world of books, because a library lesson is bounded by print and 19th century ‘good’ literature rather than connecting with contemporary culture. Efforts to create sophisticated teen readers means we often dissect the work and ruin it, alienating the reader.
This generation is used to publishing their own ideas any time they like – and we should try to explore their world. Young people today live in a world of choice whether they are consuming, expressing or producing. It’s a world of multimedia, video editing, animation, 3D visualisation and twitter. It’s Facebook and Second Life, and the interactive Web. To engage them, she said, we need to discover their place, realise their privilege and develop their passion with creative ways of enjoying the story together. These ways could include research with digital identities such as avatars to make a game of it, and ‘moving the reading experience sideways’, letting their world converge with reading.
This all sounded fine until she gave an example: they’re interested in Spiderman, so bring in a spider and then read Charlotte’s Web. This seems just like gimmickry to me, and I was very surprised by her choice of book. This great classic children’s story suits 8-11 year olds, but I suspect that secondary students would dismiss it as babyish, even if a teacher did jazz it up with Web 2.0 somehow.
However, some of her other ideas were more intriguing. Reading aloud on a podcast or Second Life; or facilitating an author visit with Skype and a WebCam sounds fun. Personal reading with Kindles or iPhones might lure some students into the world of literature, and pairing a novel with video games might engage interest too.
I use film and cartoons on and off during the year with most of my classes, always focussing on how the book differs – even with Preps when we read and view the Beatrix Potter stories in term 2. For some students, seeing the film is an incentive to borrow the book, but for others it is not. I recognise that some students are never going to become keen readers, and at least they have had some exposure to the great stories of our culture through hearing it and seeing it on film, and they can articulate what the differences are.
However I am not entirely convinced about jettisoning ‘good’ literature in favour of what’s popular and ‘relevant’. There is a price to pay for spending time on interactive experiences and listening to the voice of the adolescent. There is less time for story, and I believe that the imagination needs stories of all kinds. A good library teacher dramatises the reading to engage her students and takes them to a world beyond their own experiences. As one of my students wrote in the library survey earlier this year: ‘Sometimes we spend too much time doing other things, and not enough on the story. Library time is supposed to be about books!’