Throughout my training, and indeed my life, I hadn’t heard of the idea of multimodal literacy. In my NQT year, I worked with an incredible teacher named Jane Bednall, and with my difficult class, she and I worked together on a multimodal project around the book ‘Mirror’ by Jeannie Baker. Jane’s masterful teaching showed a different way of doing things, and the project – which explored the idea of family and what this might mean to different people – gave space for all children to think, reflect and create. It is rich in questioning and developing inference, and every time I have taught it since 2012, which is I think pretty much each year, the children have come up with new interpretations, unique inferences and beautiful work.
Multimodal literacy, in its simplest form, is about children engaging with ‘texts’ (in the wider sense of texts as cultural products) in order to explore the process of meaning-making: this usually involves texts with a multitude of semiotics, perhaps including text, image, photography and film.
A more academic definition:
Multimodal literacy refers to meaning-making that occurs through the reading, viewing, understanding, responding to and producing and inter- acting with multimedia and digital texts. It may include oral and gestural modes of talking, listening and dramatising as well as writing, designing and producing such texts. The processing of modes, such as image, words, sound and movement within texts can occur simultaneously and is often cohesive and synchronous. Sometimes speci c modes may dominate.
Walsh, 2010: p213
Mirror is a stunning text for this kind of work. It is a wordless complex picture book, which opens up the interpretive space for pupils. Mirror tells two stories, side by side, following two families in their daily life. One is in Sydney and one is in Morocco, in a Berber village. The stories are linked, and subtle little links across, within and between the stories can be found throughout. Children across my classes over the years have proved themselves so skilful at seeking out these links, in ways that slip past me.
It is incredible inclusive as a project, and this is perhaps something that marks out this approach within the teaching of whole class mixed-attainment literacy. This is a project that the most vociferous readers can get their teeth into but it is equally open for pupils who are at an early stage of English language acquisition and can be modified so easily to be suitable for pupils with a range of special educational needs.
Jeannie Baker’s picture books use the medium of collage and are often commentating on environmental and social change. This video shows Baker talking about another of her books, Journey, describing how it was made.
Our project then. First of all, the children spend time exploring the picture book. Without fail, the first time the children have the book in their groups of three, they skim through the pages, notice there are no words, and shout ‘Finished’ within about 4 minutes. When I explain that we will be reading these pages for the next two or three lessons, their eyes boggle.
We read again, but this time, the children commentate and summarise each page, with support where needed for those with reluctance or early English. The children engage in this small-group oral work, storytelling. As they do so, reading the images, they notice patterns between the stories. They notice that the organisation of the two stories ‘mirrors’ each other, and that much of the plot does too; when the boy and his father in the Australian story visit the DIY story, the boy and his father in the Moroccan story visit the market. As they do this, children leave questions and observations, and it is such a worthwhile task to unpick the difference (as we probably all know from our own classrooms).
— Jonny Walker (@jonnywalker_edu) 20 June 2017
Next, we build on this with a lot of work on similarities and differences. Again, the focus is on deep reading. Children first compare the pages and note the similarities between the Australian and the Moroccan families. Then they read again, this time noting down the differences.
This time around, after having just taught it with my Year 5 class, we colour-coded our post it notes and each pair had their own copy to refer to. Each copy was filled with insightful notes, comments, queries and interpretations.
After each reading (for observation, for questioning, for similarities, for differences), children share their answers with the whole class. There is so much build up and oral preparation here with their group of three (plus with the teacher, if necessary) that all children, including those newest to English, are able to share their ideas, however short. An ongoing theme throughout the whole project is one of regular sharing, with a focus on building opportunities for the most reluctant to speak up.
The final session which is book dependent is one in which we begin to consider the two stories alongside our own families. I always make a point of emphasising the diversity of family, and the fact that there is no ‘correct’ way of doing family. For some of us, family means a Mum and a Dad, for some of us it is just Mum, or just Dad, perhaps it is just us and our grandparents. Some of our families can be small, just two people. Some of us, it can be very large; one boy I taught this year lives in a household of 15.
In this context, children whose families differ from their peers are often much more comfortable to share about this and to begin building their own experience into their work. For many, it is the first time that they have felt comfortable airing this, particularly where their set-up might otherwise be considered unusual by their classmates, such as families with same-sex parents, families that have divorced and now contain step-parents and step-siblings and – in my local context – families where one parent has converted religion.
These lessons are incredibly rich, if sensitive to manage. Establishing the ethos of trust and sharing is crucial, but the impact on those pupils who feel that they cannot talk about family as openly as their classmates is huge. I leave this session quite flexible, as I often do not know the family stories that I will uncover, and sometimes more time is needed to talk things through. In these sessions, children have chosen to share for the first time about the death of siblings. In one really fascinating session, one boy got on his pedestal to try to explain what it was like living in a Muslim family where one parent was a convert from Christianity, meaning that one side of his family is devoutly Muslim, whereas his other side contains Christians and atheists.
The scale and depth of reflection is mesmerising, but equally impressive is the way in which the children place their families alongside those in the story, when reflecting.
I have only taught in schools with a majority of Muslim pupils, and Mirror is especially suitable here; my children identify with the technologies, the buildings and the landscapes of the Australian family, but see their own family better reflected in the Moroccan family, whose dress, customs and ways of eating are more similar to their own.
After these lessons, the project moves from interpretation towards reflection and creation. The end project for each pupil is a multimodal piece that includes poetry, painting, sketching and drama, all inspired by family.
After the lesson just described, each child takes home a questionnaire filled with questions designed to elicit a picture of family life. The questionnaire is ideally to be completed by the child, who will go home and interview the adults with whom they live. Generally speaking, most children and most families are happy to engage and participate. In the rare case where that doesn’t happen, for whatever reason, the child is supported to answer the questions from their own perspective, with the teacher.
Questions include things like:
- Tell me about something that happened when you were growing up
- Do you have special traditions and celebrations?
- What are your dreams for us children?
Experience of the project has been that the parents are quaintly curious and really enjoy answering the questions, and they are then perplexed about what the children will do with them.
Back in class, once we have the questionnaires, we begin the task of using the adults’ responses to the questionnaires as prompts for poetry; their answers become lines in a free verse poem, all about family.
The way I do this varies depending on the age and abilities of the pupils I am teaching. With the youngest classes, a writing scaffold is provided, to really structure things. This time around, whilst I began with the scaffold, I took the decision after about 20 minutes to really open things up and be more experimental with the structure.
In our most recent version, children picked out 5 or 6 responses from their family’s questionnaire, and we turn them into basic sentences. e.g. ‘I like when all the family comes back and I cook biryani’ becomes ‘My mum makes biryani for us all’. Then, our English-focus moves onto building the description. This leads to
‘My incredibly talented Mum is so happy when by brothers come back, and she cooks a delicious steaming biryani to her mother’s secret recipe.’
In addition to these, given that the children were older this time around, and are a particularly articulate bunch, I got the children to reflect on family life from their own perspective. With my most recent class, I have known that there is a real diversity of experiences, and I felt it important to articulate on the fact that family isn’t always a gooey, rosy brilliant thing. Sometimes family is supportive and brilliant for us, but sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes the people closest to us can do things that upset us or hurt us or annoy us, just as much as they can amuse us, care for us and make us happy.
This led us to some interesting conversations a heap more honesty in our work. The children found it quite subversive but reassuring to be able to say ‘I really love my family but they properly annoy me sometimes’ and then to share some of the low points. Whilst this might give a teacher a pang of anxiety, wondering what may get written, in practice the children shared what they were comfortable sharing publicly, and their most honest and sometimes critical comments were always veiled in a thick smattering of wit and humour.
‘Once, when I was 4 years old, my older sister got her head jammed in the railings of the bannister. My mum smeared her with butter.’
‘My Dad huddles beside the TV muttering in Urdu about how much he hates Ed Sheeran’.
The free verse poems that they make are something that they end up being very proud of. Some children do need much more language support and that can be given, since most children seize the opportunity to work very independently. I have a pupil who has newly arrived only a few months ago but is rapidly learning English; we wrote hers both in English and in her native language. There is limitless flexibility.
Whilst the poem is the centrepiece, we then spend a few days producing additional elements to our piece; drama, photography and art.
Rosa Parks are getting creative on their multimodal literacy projects. pic.twitter.com/dfOwSDPszu
— Park Primary (@ParkPrimaryE15) 5 July 2017
In terms of drama, working in our original groups of three, the children pick out scenes from family life. They can choose ones that they have included in their poem, ones that they have contributing themselves, or – and this was especially beautiful to see – the children chose to act out scenes from their parents’/guardians’ childhoods. One Mum wrote about running through the paddy fields in Sylhet, Bangladesh, playing games with her older sister, and the children in the class recreated this scene, which the Mum had shared in the questionnaire.
The children produced drama freeze-frames, which other children then photographed. I printed these out and the children then used them within a large A3 montage. They painted the backgrounds and we used newspapers, Argos catalogues and their special requests from Google Images to help tell the story. Some children produced extremely literal renderings of their poem, painting their bedroom at home in detail. Some took the opportunity just to show the place that they live as a background; tower blocks and living rooms, often. The paintings were incredibly telling of the children’s characters, but also helped those children who – despite the openness of the project – do struggle to write their thoughts down. One boy, despite a poem filled with family anecdotes of closeness and togetherness, wanted his artwork to be showing the other side of his family life – alone, in his room, sitting on the bed, making songs up on his guitar.
By this point, the room begins to look somewhat chaotic. All the children are engaged in different tasks. Some of them are sketching. Some are re-writing their poems. Some of them have changed their mind about the photograph and are acting out a new one, co-opting their friends to make props. But all are on task, and through the regular setting of deadlines and reminders, the work begins to come together into one massive piece of A2 card. It contains a beautifully handwritten version of their poem, it contains their photomontage, their painting and often a dizzy array of other decorative touches; their bedroom carpet is a piece of felt, they have made a pair of tiny shoes for themselves using real leather.
Bit by bit it comes together until suddenly, every child has produced a piece of A2 artwork.
We have found that the children are already celebrating their work by this point. They want to share it, show it to friends in other classes and talk about it. We decided to make a gallery in our new building this time around. All three Y5 classes did the project at once, so we had produced 75 unique products, filled with the richness of all the children’s home experiences. Many happy, some sad. Stories from Bangladesh, Nigeria, Canning Town and the Czech Republic. Artwork showing the events their grandparents went through during the Partition of India, and artwork showing themselves pranking their siblings. Each one – unique.
Year 5 loved sharing their simply breathtaking multimodal literacy projects in an interactive exhibition today. pic.twitter.com/Ah2iDD4pXz
— Park Primary (@ParkPrimaryE15) 12 July 2017
For one final flourish, we went very Modern Art for our exhibition, and each child memorising two or three lines from their poem, and they stood perfectly still in the hall. We invited all of their families and all the classes in the school to come and visit, and by jove they came! Whenever a guest approached a child to see their work, the child – like a robot with a sensor – begins reciting their poem on a loop. When the hall was full of children sharing their work, and full of visitors, it was a sight to behold, full of interest and noise.
It is a project that I always look forward to teaching, and I am fortunate enough to be in a school that sees the benefit of this kind of work. Next year, I will be working on multimodal literacy projects each week when I cover Year 3 and Year 4. As well as building on those modelled in my previous school by the incredible Jane Bednall, I am going to take the plunge and attempt to make my own new projects.
I am always happy to chat more about this, and I would love to hear of more schools taking on this approach, even if only as an experiment.
Having completed the project with my most recent class, I found that they were far more sensitive, thoughtful and funny than they had originally seemed to be. We shared so much, and I ended up sharing lots about my own family too. Beyond the beautiful work that thy produced, it hugely improved the relationships in the class. Wonderful.
Walsh, M. (2010) Multimodal literacy: What does it mean for classroom practice? Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, Vol 33 No. 3 p211-239 – Available here – https://www.alea.edu.au/documents/item/63