Justin Timberlake, Gnomeo and Juliet, and more. In this episode, Andy, Emily, and Adam are joined again by special guest, Dr. Mario Trono, to discuss the role of popular media in today’s classroom. Is there a risk in showing popular media to learners? What are the benefits? Plus, here if it's okay to replace reading a book with audio or a film?
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Hi, I'm Andy Psarianos.
Hello, I'm Emily Guille-Marrett.
Hi, I'm Adam Gifford.
This is the School of School Podcast. Welcome to the School of School podcast.
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All right, welcome back everyone. We've got Mario Trono, once again with us. Mario, what are we talking about today?
We are talking about the use of popular media. Are you going to bring it into the classroom? Are you going to stop what you're doing with your chemistry moment or your math lesson or your social studies piece. And are you going to allow commercial culture into the sacred space of the classroom? Everything from the Harry Potter to the latest Hollywood product or whatever. Can you use it or is it a distraction, finally? Are we lowering our educational standards by letting every single time we have to teach language, do we have to go get hip hop? Every single time we wants to light up about something, do we have to plunge the room into darkness and turn on a movie? Or is this the way of the future?
Oh, good question. So just like bringing it back to my own experience as a child, most of my memories from being really young vanished. But one clear memory I have from school is that television cart being wheeled into the classroom. That was the exciting event for the week or day. I'm like mid fifties, so that's like a long time ... we're talking about the late sixties, early seventies was when I was in.
No, no, it's earlier than that, it's earlier than that. I remember doing it as a teacher. I've pushed that trolley. So no, keep going, Andy, it's happened even more recently. Keep going, keep going.
No, but I mean, I remember it being exciting as a student. I remember breaking that cycle. We had these ... geez, I wish I could find copies of these things. I'm sure they're probably on YouTube. These mini dramas that were in black and white that came from France. And then we used to watch them in French class. And it was really funny because we were ... of course, I grew up in Quebec. So we had our Quebecois accent, which doesn't sound anything like the French in France, so we always thought it was really kind of funny listening to all these really sophisticated cigarette, smoking, looking people talk in a funny way.
It is funny you, non Canadians out there. You're just going to have to trust us on that. The Quebec language, it sounds very, very different, the Quebec version of French than what you'll hear coming to you from European cinema, that's for sure.
Do you ever see any ... Andy, whatever you wanted to particularly get across to connect with one of your kids or somebody wanted to teach about something? What do you think? Does it cheapen or lessen the moment in a kid's eyes when you say, "Well, it's just like in Harry Potter, when." Or, "You can see this theme in Lord of the Rings." Do they kind of roll their eyes at you and think, "Oh, here's the old guy trying to meet me where I live and be a little cool by use in popular culture to connect things." Or do you find that it works?
I think it's underestimated how valuable popular culture can ... what critical role it can play at any level. Whether it's education or even running a company. Like one of the greatest joys for me ever with popular media is watching Silicon Valley on HBO in Canada. Because it is so true. Every element of it, I've lived through. It really resonates with me. I'm almost ashamed to say that I've got some really good ideas that I put in action, I won't and tell you what they are, from watching Silicon Valley. Which is funny because it's such a ridiculous show. But it's so close to real, so close to true life.
So I get motivation, myself, and I love watching that kind of stuff with my kids and just laughing together, but learning at the same time. Just a real world example, every month I do these one on ones with the staff. And I've been recommending TV shows. I say, "You should watch this TV show." Because there's a lot of things we can learn from that.
Emily, you seem really like young and hip and plugged into all sorts of commercial and popular media. What do you think?
I'm going to own that because it's a podcast and no one else can see me. So thank you for painting that picture. I was listening to that and I suddenly felt a little emotional because I was thinking there was a recent situation. So helping kids when somebody's died, like that's quite complicated, isn't it? In terms of like how you ... sometimes they find that a bit tricky. So there are times I think for emotional reasons where you can find, say movies, or ... I mean, obviously, there's books. But movies and things that they can see that can help them and maybe even have a cathartic moment, a bit of a cry and they can connect. So sometimes I think there's opportunities to use popular culture. They can relate to something that they're seeing and then imagine how that feels in their life. So I've definitely used it like that before.
Also in all seriousness, one of my favourite things. So I'm reluctant readers, kids who can read, but perhaps are turned off. Like, oh my gosh, graphic novels, these are amazing. They really are the best thing. And I think there, you've got this amazing opportunity where you're interlinking all sorts of different elements. And then in writing, I think sometimes we should totally let more multimedia come into play. Maybe there's sort of bits where you actually don't show the children everything, there is characters that they know and then they've got write on. So you've taken me through a bit of a journey talking about this, to be honest with you. But I think it's got a place, I do.
I don't want to hijack this, but like this flash came in my mind and I was like, "I have to ask Emily what she thinks of this." So teaching literacy, is it okay to watch a movie or listen to an audio book as opposed to reading the book?
Oh, as opposed to.
Yeah. So let's say ... okay, that sounds like kind of maybe a bit farfetched. Because often the book is very different than the movie. I remember a rendition of Great Expectations where at the end, can't remember the main ... was it Pip? The main character.
He gets the girl and he gets the money, at the end. Like, no, no, that's not the story. That's quite a twist. So there's a problem with that. Okay, let's use a better example. So Shakespeare is very difficult for a lot of people to penetrate, including me. But if I watch it, I get it. I get it. I get it. And I see the brilliance. And if I listen to a great actor read it, I get the brilliance. But if I read it, I can't penetrate it. But is it okay? That's my question.
Yes. I say yes. And actually, I tell you something that blew my mind was the kids animation is not Disney. I can't remember who did it. But Gnomeo & Juliet. And there are so many-
Yeah, it is Disney.
That is awesome. When my kids were watching that, I was watching it on a whole other level. I think that's what's so wonderful about multimedia and literacy. I don't think we need to be snobby about it. That's my opinion. I suppose it's that thing about, when you said in ... I can't remember the word you used now. But instead of, or ... I think it's about how all media intertwines and relates to one another and it can all jump in and out. And you can inspire, but then that could be a door to maybe going to the text, reading the text. And perhaps in a way that maybe that wouldn't have got you in the first time just by having it there.
And I do think you'll write about the power of audio and talent reading it. Because I know that when I'm looking at Shakespeare, like I can't ... it's amazing how I can sort of see the words and you can start to intellectualise things because you are taught very quickly to dissect it. But to actually understand it and see it, you've got to go to a good performance or have a good audio opportunity.
And then they just do this magic and you're like, "Oh."
I get it in a way that I personally would struggle to just read without ... well, at the end of the day, Shakespeare was there to be performed. And a good-
Yeah, that's right. I remember going to the Globe with Anne. Anne is my wife and I know I talked about my family quite a lot in this podcast. But Anne studied English literature and taught it at University. And she taught Shakespeare for a long time and she knows it inside out. And I remember going to the Globe Theatre in London, many times with Anne to watch a play and not always Shakespeare, but something. And she would explain the premise to me before we watched it. And then I'd watch it and I just got so much more out of it because I could see. And I was like, "Wow, I never would've picked up on that."
And it was enriching having that multiple experiences of it was enriching, it was making it better. But I guess the downside is, is that you're also taking somebody's interpretation of it, not necessarily your own. And you're being brought down that path and maybe you would have a different experience if you didn't do it. I don't know. I don't know what the answer is. And I feel like I'm just kind of skimming the surface as like a real amateur here. But I'm really interested in what you have to say about it, because clearly you know a lot more about this than I do.
Well, I'm really glad that ... excuse me. Emily mentioned the Gnomeo & Juliet because my son is just starting Romeo and Juliet in grade 10. And I said, "Oh, you're going to read Romeo and Juliet in your English class this year. That's great." And he goes, "Yeah, yeah. She gave us a copy of Gnomeo & Juliet." And I said, "Wait, what did you say?" He said, "Oh, I said Gnomeo." Because of course, he'd see that when he was younger.
And so I said, "Why don't we watch the movie with ..." He's so cute, he calls Leonardo DiCaprio, Leonardo, like Leo. He likes him so much, he is on a first name basis with him. And I said, "Why don't we watch the DiCaprio movie, Romeo and Juliet? It's a really good version." I don't know if you remember, that was from the late nineties. And it's got a lot of music in it, the soundtrack was huge and stuff. And he said, "Leo's in that?" As Emily was speaking, I was thinking to myself, "Reminds me, that's one of the reasons I most like bringing popular media into things." It's not to illustrate a lesson, it's to let students know that some of these weird things you teach them are everywhere in the world. Everybody knows about it, except them. Because they're only in grade six or nine. And it's so fun letting them know that this isn't just some weird thing the teachers saying. It's everywhere. And then they start to see it more and more out there in the world. And I could see that on my son's face, that was neat.
But I think what's also really important with the popular culture thing is you can go at it in interesting ways. You're not always saying, "Well, I'm teaching Shakespeare. So I will find a popular version of Shakespeare." You can get at things from cool angles. Like social studies classes draw on media studies a lot to illustrate things about society. And here's a great example. Do you remember the CSI franchise, Crime Scene Investigations? It was everywhere.
Oh yeah, yeah.
Everywhere for a while. Well, a criminologist I know, he said that he just loves referring to it because he talks about how wrong society gets things through popular culture. So he talks about the negatives of popular culture as a way of saying, "Well, aren't we smart in our schooling because we can see the mistake." And the best example he came up with is that so many people ... we're talking about the United States context here. So many people in the US were just addicted to these crime shows that would come up with the most marvellous technological solves for crimes. Like his DNA was found on the Q-tip, but that had also been in the nostril of the person that killed the other person. And so we've got this special laser treatment now and scientists mix that with the DNA, connected it all to the genome project and she is guilty.
And so what was happening in the States is juries did not ... this was called the CSI effect. This is literally something it got called in legal studies. Juries in the United States were hesitant to convict on circumstantial evidence. Now don't you know from your TV that the phrase circumstantial evidence is supposed to be bad. It's quote, only circumstantial evidence. Most cases are, rely primarily on circumstantial evidence and the jury has to go, "Oh, this is looking pretty much like the guy is guilty." So all of a sudden people realise, "What are we doing here?" So they have to start educating juries that there are serious limits to forensic solves. So yeah, that's a kind of a fun way of bringing pop culture into things, more kind of at an oblique angle unexpectedly. And it just lights things up for a bit and then you move on.
So Adam, come on. What's some real world classroom experiences you had with wheeling in that television trolley? And did it help, did it hurt? Was it a reward? Did you use it as a teaching tool?
Well, yeah. I mean I could sum it up. Those days pretty easily and that this great deal of anticipation. And then usually two things happened, both of which resulted in disappointment. First one is you couldn't get it going. Someone had taken the lead, not giving it back or whatever else you spend half an hour mucking around with it. Or the second thing is you put in the tape, push play-
Put in the tape?
And there was something that was ... yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. I started teaching a while ago. But it was something ridiculously dull and it was worn out and scratching, all those things. What interests me and everything that we're saying is of course there's merit in popular culture. There's some really clever people doing some really clever things in popular culture and media.
But as an educator, I have an irrational fear of popular media in classrooms. I think from a really early age, I used to love comics. And my dad was just absolutely into comics like no one else.
And so I'd read comics to bits. But my teachers, fortunately, they changed their tune. My dad's quite a successful journalist. And so first of all, it was, oh, comics are low grade. You don't read them. Here's a proper book.
I'd say, "Yeah, but my dad thinks they're quite good." And I didn't realise at the time, but actually that packed a bit of weight. So they changed their tune on it a wee bit. I think that's the point is that I have grown up and I don't know whether it's things like, you know when you put the radio on and someone says, "There was better music in my day. This modern stuff's dire. No one's got any sort of musicianship or talent at all these days." And I think-
Yeah, but it's true.
See, this is very enforceable. But I don't know why in education, I don't know why I have an irrational fear of introducing something. It feels so risky and dangerous. It's almost like something has to be 50 years old and critiqued for 50 years before we're allowed to unleash it-
Onto children. And so, I don't know, I suppose we need more good examples. Because there's a real lack of good examples. You've spoken about great examples today. And if I don't see them and get desensitised to them and start seeing them as of course, they're brilliant. That's why they're called popular. There's something about them that attracts people to them and those sorts of things. There's got to be some form of merit in them.
It's like, when someone says that ... I don't know. I'm just going to use, you pick any name here. And I know as soon as I say it aloud, my children will be like, "Oh my God, that's so yesterday." But if I said someone like say Justin Timberlake, and someone says to me, "Oh, it's just popular music, not got talent." You think, "I've never met anyone who's had that level of success that doesn't have a stupid amount of talent." In fact, I've never met anyone with this. Or if I have, with counting one or two people. These people have got an abundance of talent, but it's so easy to dismiss it. I think these messages are reinforced all the time. And I think that ... I don't know. I need to be braver as an educationalist and I need to learn more. I need to discover these things and the stuff that I might find brilliant in my own house, maybe the kids would find it brilliant, too.
Yeah, you've really raised something there, Adam. I mean, what's the youngest teacher in primary or other levels of school can be? Like what is it in the UK, 22, 23-
Very early 20.
Very, very early twenties.
All right. Well, I was in my mid twenties when a junior high teacher asked me ... only in my mid twenties, asked me to come out to a school. And I thought, "Well, this is great. It's a poetry piece, so I'll talk about, Soundgardens, Black Hole Sun, I'll talk about Pearl Jam song, Jeremy." And it was a grade nine class. And I said, "Okay, everybody, I want to talk to you today about Pearl Jam's Jeremy and the poetry in that song. But we'll look at the lyrics in a moment." And the kid just burst out, says, "That song's old." It was three years old. And I'd forgotten how quickly old popular culture, especially.
So music is the most dangerous one, I think, for that sort of syndrome. But if there are any teachers out there actually thinking, "Okay, maybe I should get some more popular culture in there." At all costs, avoid trying to connect. It's almost safer to pick something very well out of distance. Or you can sneak up on them, sneak up on something if they're in upper levels of school, grab something from their childhood that they'll remember and look at it that way. Because it brings back-
Oh, that's nice.
Warm, fuzzy feelings.
Do you remember Harry Potter? Do you remember FernGully and he was like, "Oh yeah." Well, it happened to do this. And you can sneak up on him that way. But yeah, trying to be hip and connect with the kids through pop culture, how many teachers are qualified to do that in any successful way after all the ages. I think the age of 27, can we put that, Andy? You were 27 once. That should be the cutoff for being cool.
Sure. I like 27. So we're talking a lot about film. What are some other popular media that teachers can make effective use of in the classroom?
Well, Emily, you mentioned graphic novels earlier on.
Yeah. Graphic novels and comics.
Do you ever play around with the comic book ... I'm saying that in quotation marks. Like movie versions of the graphic novels? Or do you think that graphic novels can just resonates it on their own? Because boy, the kids love them. Oh my goodness.
Yeah. That's interesting. I hadn't really thought about that. At the moment, I just think it's ... yeah. And I do think that there are poorly written graphic novels, which I can see are people who are trying to make a buck because they've thought, "Oh, these look good and we'll do them." And that's not about being snobby, like I'm not talking about you can't have movie graphic ... I think if it's a graphic novel and it's done well, it's engaging and it's fun and it draws the kids in. And I think that's fantastic.
And I've also noticed ... and I don't know if there's any evidence on this. But a lot of kids, when they get into graphic novels, they start drawing more. And they're writing and drawing and they're creating their own. That's fascinating to me because you are engaging them on different levels. So yeah, I don't know. I can't think off the top of my head about a graphic novel that I can think of that's film. Although to be honest with you, I guess there's a whole lot of graphic novels that exist originally as a full novel and then a movie and there's a graphic novel, and there's like multiple ways into it. And now I guess with the franchises, you've got the music and everything else that comes in.
Yeah, it's a media bundle. And graphic novels too, they really resonate with meme culture because when you look at how panels are laid on the graphic novel, the visual textures draw you in. And then a character will be just saying a single word. And then in the next frame, just two words. Then you'll get whole pages sometimes with no words. So your eye has to go to facial expressions to get the idea across. And then you'll turn the page and you'll get a little soliloquy sometimes. Like it's Proto-Cinematic, like it's already live story boarding, which is of course why all these movie makers thrilled when graphic novels got so big, they thought these are movies ready to go. And they're already popular, they already have an audience. We just need to buy the rights and off we go.
But the best thing about graphic novels is ... and to go back to Adam's phrase, just calling it the comic book. That stuff is the best for young people's identity journeys. You know when you're the hero of your own story and if you think you imagine when you're little, that the whole world has your adventure in mind and what you're going through. And so many graphic novels are about identity discoveries or taking on new personas and shedding your old identity and stuff like that. And then there's like complicated stuff in there, there's politics, there's philosophy. But it's such a popular form, it can all come back to the young consuming teenager that gets demonised so much, I think in these days.
Like, oh, millennials, they're just on their phones. Well, yeah, we're in a paradigm shift where the whole world is being technologically rewired and they're at the leading edge. And I never like to dismiss people that are preoccupied with pop culture and teens, because it's the lingua franca of our age. Elections are getting decided on memes and sound bites on Facebook. Because, think about it, you get everything in one little Facebook, you get a couple of words, a soundbite and an image. It's so addictive. It goes back to what Andy was saying in another podcast. But is this how we're communicating now? And how is it not how we are communicating now, is a better question, maybe.
I think the other thing too, is that I've noticed ... this is just totally anecdotal. But I have noticed that there is more sophistication in things like the writing of children's movies, for example. Is that I get the sense that you've got two very clever script writers. You've got the script writers that are writing for the children, but also writing for the adults that are accompanying the child to the movie. There's a level of sophistication that sort of crept in there, that is different.
I think that when you look at things like graphic novels and turning them into movies and whatnot. I think that the popularity equates to vast sums of money, which equates to at times, not all the time, but being able to get some really high calibre people that are thinking and given time to think about how do we represent this? Because there's some really serious issues at stake here.
So I think that these things that have changed and expanded and got bigger, the quality may across the board. It's just a really ... yeah, it's an observation, maybe ill informed. But the quality has probably got better, like comparing with some of the same mediums of when I was younger or when I was a kid. It doesn't make them bad movies, like there's plenty of movies from when I was a kid that I loved to bits and always will do. But I just think that there's a level of sophistication that's attached to things like, yeah, I love to call them comics. I know graphic novel is different, but those sorts of representations. It's huge and they're valid and they're legit and they can teach stuff and weaken. And they can get a really serious message across in a way that's totally accessible. And so I think, just opening and being open-minded to this, it's not a modern fad. It's not like the kids in their phones again. It's so much of this is sophisticated. And I think we can't underestimate that.
Really, popular culture was the primary way of communicating ideas in the past. Like through song and through ritual and through storytelling. Like you think about Homer, for example, there was no written ... The Iliad and The Odysey, they were never written down. They were just stories that were told and they relied on great storytellers. And that brought in the emotion and all of the Greek plays and everything. The morality that was discussed and the big human issues that people struggled with in the formation of these early societies, we're all being dealt with through the arts, through theatre and storytelling. It's just interesting.
And I don't know much about Asian culture, but I expect it was much the same in China and other places as well. And certainly even more recently with a lot of Aboriginal cultures, that they were made that storytelling and that dance and rhythm and music was up until very recently. And still in some cases, the foundation of their culture and their means of communicating big ideas, as well as daily experiences.
There you go. Thanks everyone.
Thank you for joining us on The School of School Podcast.