WOW

Just, WOW.

The Women of the World festival at the Southbank Centre in London is in its 5th year, and going strong. It lasts for an entire week, and involves hundreds of women and men from around the globe. For a mere £20, you get a full day pass on the Saturday or the Sunday. This gives you the opportunity to see bands and choirs, take self-defence classes, do yoga, laugh along to comedy, listen to inspirational women discuss current issues, take part in workshops, and listen to some brave women tell their personal tales of suffering. All of this in the lovely setting of the Southbank, with bright flags and colours everywhere, friendly staff to help you around. Even if you didn’t pay for an evening ticket for the big names (Salma Hayek, Hugh Grant) you still got to see and talk to some pretty awesome people. There were so many amazing experiences in just the day I was there, I wish I’d spent the whole week listening and talking to amazing women.

To pre-empt any backlash, no, it wasn’t in any way anti men. Or anti anything else. It concerns me that whenever something is held up as a celebration of a particular marginalised group, there are always cries of ‘what about straight people!’ ‘what about white people!’ Celebrating and empowering anyone isn’t about saying they’re in any way better than anyone else. A completely equal world (for gender, race and everything else) makes sense for all human beings. But people are marginalised. People are treated differently for who they are. And it felt pretty awesome to be in a space where being who you are was celebrated, encouraged and dissected. Through positive experiences like this, hopefully all people can appreciate how the struggle of a particular group is linked intrinsically to everyone else’s, and that the empowerment of one leads to the empowerment of the whole. There were quite a few men there, too.

We started out with a look at the news. A little depressing, to say the least. A ‘women’s day’ pullout in one newspaper had one story about a female sportsperson and some adverts for makeup. A large image emblazoned with the title ‘are men the new women?’ featured a man relaxing by a pool with some bubbly in his hand. The key words associated with women included ‘pores!’ and ‘angst!’ A case about an industrial tribunal for unfair dismissal and a lawyer calling the teenage victims of gang rape ‘slags.’ So far so not surprising. After this initial look at how things currently are, the feeling was overwhelmingly one of how things are, and will, change for the better. The inspirational Leslee Udwin who made the documentary ‘India’s Daughter’ was there and framed it in such a beautifully simplistic way. The rape and murder of that girl were awful. But who are we to say which of these is any worse than any other rape or torture. Her message was simple. From sex trafficking to objectification in the media, from rape to catcalling, from being denied basic human rights to being treated like a less employable or intelligent human being, they are all born of the same issue; the lack of value placed on females. In some countries this manifests itself far more shockingly and in others it is more subtle, but it still exists. The backlash from her film has led to criminal proceedings and a prisoner being stoned to death. While the average Jane wouldn’t expect something quite so extreme, the message quite clearly was that we can make a difference. What followed was a group experience where if a statement applied to us, we stood up. It was wonderful to realise how many people shared both happy and difficult life experiences, and set the tone for a sense of togetherness that lasted all day.

We heard from other people who are also having a massive impact on the world of equality and perception. The woman who devised #ThisGirlCan (if you haven’t seen it – the fantastic campaign around normal women exercising to feel great and look great, even if they wobble) and EverydaySexism (something which started out as a website and is now working to implement changes in government policy). Normal women who saw something they were unhappy about and tried to do something about it were making a difference. WOWNOW was produced by Gemma Cairney (Radio 1 DJ, I’m not cool enough to know who she is), and produced a shocking video where young teenage girls talk honestly about the way they feel about themselves, the pressures of things like exams, Instagram and ASKFM, and how porn is infiltrating their friendships and relationships (a boy was asked why he didn’t stop having sex with a girl when he saw she was crying. He thought it was normal). I was left looking at the different areas of my life and if I could in some way help to spread a more realistic and empowering image of women to the world. Watch this space!

As our day continued, we went into some smaller rooms for more specific discussions. In ‘Hollywood, Sci-fi, Computer Games and Rape,’ I discovered the term ‘fridging.’ This is when a female character is raped, murdered, or tortured, which is then used as a plot device to drive forward the protagonist’s desire for revenge. All too often, rape is depicted as an issue to do with men (look at Vietnam war films), power or control (Game of Thrones) rather than the horrific and terrifying thing it is for the victim. We also talked about the lack of male-male rape, or even female-male rape, and how the media supported the myth that false rape claims are more prevalent than they actually are. Where we go with this was left open. While using something horrific as a plot device is arguably lazy and insensitive writing, exploring the darker sides of humanity and its effects is something that art is often concerned with, so how to navigate through this is very interesting. Unless we want to return to the 18th Century idea of a novel being morally instructional, it is unclear. Obviously, each one of these sessions could have taken an entire day’s discussion!

The most harrowing was the personal sharing of victims of domestic abuse. I find it hard to write my response to this without feeling like I am trivialising these brave women’s experiences. Suffice to say that I was left with a sense of the tragedy people go through every day. We left the session talking about the need to connect more with others, to allow a greater support network so people don’t feel alone.

We finished with a talk with biographer Rachel Holmes and her work on writing books about women who changed the face of society. She talked about Eleanor Marx (I’m embarrassed to say I had never heard of her) and Sylvia Pankhurst. I’m definitely buying her books! She unfolded the stories of two amazing women starting to tread the boards of a life as yet unlived by most women, and the differences they made to socialism and women’s rights are phenomenal. Once again, the message we were left with was that not just at elections but in between, the things we do every day can raise awareness and bring about real change.

So where to leave this post? At times depressing, always frustrating and often heartbreaking, the plight of women the world over is a sad thing to behold, and unfortunately still seems to be something that needs to be defended as worth investigating and supporting. Having said that, the leaps forward made in so many areas of the world cannot be underestimated. But there is so much more to be done. Young women today are under such pressures and have things to deal with that we simply can’t understand, so our thinking and ideas around how to help them need to change in line with technology and other changes in the modern world. If so many people are prepared to gather in one place, of all genders, sexuality, races and creeds, and raise their voices in affirmation of a world where everyone is respected equally, surely the world our children grow up in will look different than it does now.

Myself and I

I’m reading Margaret Atwood On Writers and Writing. It’s lovely to read an author musing on being the very thing that they are without sounding too grandiose or other wordly. Long have we been exposed to the accepted narrative that The Writer operates on some higher and more noble plane than mere mortals, and it’s pleasantly comforting to hear such a great writer talk about the insecurities her young self felt when treading out into these rather murky waters. Something that really struck a chord with me, was the notion of the writer having two distinct sides to themselves. I don’t know if people are surprised that the novel I’m writing is quite bleak and violent. Certainly I’m a cheery person, not one to dwell on the negative side of things, yet clearly someone in there is more than preoccupied with the darker side of humanity. And I’ve noticed her a lot more of late. Mostly because of all the time I’m spending on my own. As any teacher will tell you, time for quiet reflection is hardly a feature of the job. While you do feel isolated from your peers (a group of teenagers doesn’t have quite the same vibe, although they can be fun) it’s rare that you feel truly isolated, rushing as you are from one lesson, observation, plan, assessment, book marking, Parents’ Evening, data entry and so on until you are gasping for breath at the end of each half term.

What I’ve noticed since clambering off that particular roller coaster is that I spend a lot of time truly on my own, with a good stretch of hours in front of me, cleared away for the task of writing. Which is when she comes out. I find that I get delighted with altercations, minor catastrophes in the street which would usually upset me, or at least produce an empathetic reaction. I’m much more likely to be scribbling down some notes or thinking about how to perfectly capture the abject look of sorrow on the face of the girl opposite me on the tube than offer any sort of support. It’s unnerving. Not only this, but I can’t remember ever having been so silent for such long periods of time. With my money-paying exploits taking me all over London (private tutoring, to be clear) I spend an inordinate amount of time on trains, buses, walking, and even when I get there it’s a one-to-one conversation with a pupil, not a cacophony of voices heard streaming out of a Year 8 class last thing on a Friday. I like talking. A lot. In fact it might be that my writing has got more dialogue-heavy the less I’ve found real conversation happening in my life. If you happen to be the person I encounter that evening, I do apologise for the ear-bashing you’ll get for a good forty minutes, but I hope you understand.

According to quite a few people out there, I might be doing myself a favour. Apparently, spending time truly on our own is one of the things we’ve lost in the modern social networking age, and might be one of the things we need in order to simply process the amount of information we’re overloaded with on a daily basis. But also, to be happy. There’s something to be said about staring out of the window for a few minutes. Even if, as in my case, it’s in the search for an interesting way of describing something mundane. We could all do with a bit of time getting to know ourselves, however many of us there may be.

New Technologies – teaching the new generation

Don’t they know it all already?

In a word, no. Just because our pupils are exposed to a massive amount of ‘tech’ it doesn’t necessarily mean they will be adept at using for a variety of outcomes or be able to critically evaluate the impact that it has on them or on society. Most people tend to use this stuff on a ‘need to know’ basis. No-one knew how to tweet or IM before the technology became available, and so young people will tend to use whatever is most popular or most useful for them in their social interactions. Not to sell them short, in fact the massive positive to be taken from this is that because they do spend a lot of time using it, the possibilities in the classroom are hugely broadened.

Techs into teaching

There is an insane amount out there. From Storify to Posterous, from Twitter to Wallwisher, the web and associated technologies are just bursting with stuff that can add a bit of va va voom to your lessons. . The question that I feel is often left unanswered, is why it’s being used.

Issues and problems

All too often we end up ‘ticking the box’ of new technologies and then getting back to what we usually do. Schools or departments may desire a modern feel to their school but truly embedding into a curriculum or a school ethos may be tricky. Some teachers find these technologies challenging, and are reluctant to feel out of their depth. Others point out that a lot of teaching techniques could be done without them. While this may be the case, I think this is slightly missing the point.

Keeping it fresh

Allowing pupils to create content, comment in different ways, or even just see things on a different type of screen, is undoubtedly what is needed in the modern classroom. The value of taking something they are incredibly familiar and comfortable with and using it as an educational tool should ensure your lessons stay fresh and exciting. However, this doesn’t mean that throwing a blog writing exercise or getting everyone to Tweet about something suddenly escalates your teaching, and it’s interesting to note that Ofsted no longer include it as a criteria for an Outstanding lesson. As ever, if it fits with the lesson, and it suits the learners, it can have a valuable impact on the outcome. As ever, let’s not be doing things for the sake of it.

Media Literacy Part 2

Limiting the field?

While I am incredibly pleased to see something so vital and fundamental to modern education being approved by the powers that be, unfortunately the main focus of this seems to be the ‘big bad media’ approach, through which we are all mindless, passive vehicles blindly accepting what the media tells us and that children should be protected from its evil intentions. This is, of course, only part of the story. On the one hand, I am reluctant to follow the line of children being passive sponges which soak up everything they hear and see with no filtering whatsoever, but it is also only the tip of the iceberg. While of course it is massively important that children are educated about how the media has the power to manipulate and alter perceptions, they also need to understand more about the very techniques that are being used to create these. It also seems to assume that the only media that influences children in any real way is adverts. What about the controversy sparked by Rihanna and what it suggests about music videos? How do the gender roles we see in blockbuster films affect our perceptions of society? How has social networking affected the way we interact with each other? There could of course be a much longer list here!

Approaches in the classroom

The possibilities here are endless, and will vary depending on what your subject/keystage/objectives are. We have tried including some sort of topical media story as a starter once a week with Year 9 pupils. Not only did they tell us that they found it interesting, it also allowed us to explore more complex ideas like the ways the press can sensationalise stories (the Japanese earthquake and aftermath at the time) and how the same story can be reported in a very different way by newspapers or news organisations with different agendas. This ended up being a wonderfully interesting digression about politics! The phone hacking scandal gave us a huge opportunity to discuss the press, regulation, the power of Twitter, and a whole host of media literacy topics. In English lessons pupils looked at the way similar messages were used across different media platforms when advertising, while another year group looked at different strands of the media and how the register and tone of communication varied, as well as their impact on society in general. I am running a whole-school group which is trialling different ideas in different subject areas so I will hopefully have some more ideas to report here soon. Some initial thoughts have been to look at how musical tastes can be influenced by the media, tracking the development of a news story across different media types and giving pupils a toolkit for deconstruction of media texts that covers all media types. There is a lot more to be discussed and studied, but for now the main issue is convincing educators that it is a vital part of modern education, no matter what subject you teach. What do you think? Should media literacy be dealt with more transparently in schools? How can we do this? I look forward to your comments.

Media Literacy Part 1

Qualifying

The term ‘media literacy’ (often also termed ‘digital literacy’) has been bandied around in educational circles for a while now, and has been the subject of several documents (http://bit.ly/gKEWmz) and case studies (http://bit.ly/qUdCz0), of which this is clearly only a sample that I have come across. It is a hugely broad and encompassing term which is possibly one of the most problematic issues, as it takes just as long to define exactly what it is we’re talking about as it does to figure out whether or not it’s something we should be prioritising. To summarise what I think are the most important elements of the general theory, it’s about educating people (I say people as I think it’s just as valid for teachers as it is for pupils) about the influence of the media. This includes the massive assumptions we have about ourselves and our pupils (see http://bit.ly/Cdgmv for discussion on ‘digital natives,’ although I would argue that the link between someone growing up with technology around them and therefore being able to use it successfully is too much of a leap) and also the but also stresses the importance of decoding and deconstructing the messages that bombard us every day via the mass media. Should pupils have an understanding of the motives of media companies and how this skews their messages? Should pupils be able to understand how something is constructed in order to not only decode the messages it promotes but in order to successfully be able to reproduce it?

Barriers

People’s main objection to taking something like media literacy seriously is heavily tied in with their lack of respect for the area in general. Often what is perceived as ‘easy’ or ‘obvious’ are the things we encounter every day. Therefore modern popular fiction is less likely to be treated as ‘literature’ and websites or films are less likely to be seen as worthy of study. The issue is not really about whether or not the media is worthy of study, at least not for this discussion, but rather that the widespread influence and all-pervasive nature of the media and digital technology means that we are doing our pupils a disservice not to help them in decoding and creating what will be an enormous part of their working and adult life. Interestingly enough, despite what appears to be a ‘back to basics’ approach to education in general, the government have just endorsed a ‘media literacy pack’ produced by Media Smart (http://bit.ly/p88Whu) in order to help teachers tackle issues of skewed messages in the media in advertising and related to body image in general which could have an adverse affect on young and influential minds. So where is the secondary equivalent? How can a topic so broad begin to be embraced in schools in any real way? Do teachers need to be convinced of its importance before it can be prioritised in curriculums? I’ll be trying answer some of these questions in the second post. Please submit your comments, I’d be really interested to know your thoughts or what you’ve encountered.