A Gift From a Master

Every now and then, a book comes out that is so good, that I can only view it as a gift from its author. Two books of this caliber have recently come out: Edward Tufte‘s Beautiful Evidence, and Scott McCloud‘s Making Comics. I’ll save the Tufte for another day, and talk about the McCloud for now.

I’ve been working on projects using Digital Storytelling techniques since the nineties, and McCloud’s books have been a key tool in that work. Why? Well, first of all, digital comics are one of the many possible manifestations of digital storytelling. Setting that aside for a moment, though, there’s a deeper reason that McCloud’s work is important: his analysis of the craft is so rich and deep that it provides both a guide to broader topics in communication and the visual arts, as well as an exemplar for how to communicate about the workings of these fields.

All of McCloud’s books analyzing comics have been written as comics. His first book, Understanding Comics, dealt with the core syntactic and semantic elements that make comics work; the followup, Reinventing Comics, covered the potential for change and new directions in comics, including their transformation as they entered the digital sphere. Sounds pretty thorough — so why is this third book needed?

Making Comics fills in the gap between the general theory covered in Understanding Comics and the translation of that theory into actual comics-making practice. In other words, what is covered here is how the elements of comics are harnessed in the process of actually making them. This does not refer to the “here’s how artist X draws character Y” approach taken by a million dreary “You can draw comics too!” tutorials, but rather refers to how symbolic elements and aspects of person and place are chosen and translated into an actual rendering for the purpose of telling a story.

The audience for this book is most emphatically not just budding comics artists and comics enthusiasts — McCloud’s analysis of process in comics creation sheds light on a broad range of topics in the study of media and communication. In particular, any educators who are serious about these issues in the context of their own practice should definitely consider picking up this book — and its two predecessors. Me, I think I’ll try to make it to one of McCloud’s talks to thank him in person for his wonderful gift…

Transformation, Technology, and Education in the State of Maine

For the past few years, I have had the good fortune to work closely on a number of projects with the Maine Learning Technologies Initiative. The MLTI has provided all middle school students in the state of Maine with one-to-one access to laptops and software. The software bundle is rather interesting, since it encompasses far more than the traditional office suite, including software for music composition, systems modeling, digital storytelling, lab data acquisition, and structured information processing and sharing.

In recent weeks, I have had several people ask me about the current status of the project and its future directions. In particular, there has been considerable interest in how schools involved in the project plan to keep “pushing forward” to significantly enhance the quality of education that children receive. One part of the answer to this question is described in my slides and audio from a series of workshops conducted with Maine superintendents, which outline a model currently being used for this purpose. This same model has also been used in sessions with school principals throughout the state — the goal is to make sure that all schools use the laptops as an engine for educational transformation, rather than just a fancy textbook or typewriter.

As always, I welcome all questions and feedback.

Images of a Parade

It’s the day after Thanksgiving here in the US — usually called “Black Friday“, but which I’ve heard better described as “Sleep Off The Turkey Day” — and it seems as good a day as any other to get back in the blogging saddle.

I was looking over the New York Times’ coverage of the Thanksgiving Day Macy’s parade, and noticed that their slide show, while competently shot, was, well, somewhat lacking in the narration and emotion departments. I decided to try an experiment: what would happen if I ran a Flickr search for photos of the parade?

The results were astounding — not only were many photos far more interesting and compelling than the Times’ slide show, many were better composed and executed in formal terms as well. Compare this photo to the Times’ photo of Garfield — which do you think does a better job of telling a story?

What’s more, the Flickr search will only get better as time goes by — more people will post their photos of the parade, and more people will comment on them, pushing the interesting/unusual/powerful ones to the top of the stack.

Now, I am not suggesting that the Times should get rid of their photographers, nor that the quality of their work is subpar — but I am suggesting that something very interesting happens when a community (and Flickr is most definitely a community) shares its creative work in an open social space. And since this blog focuses on education, I would like to gently urge educators to overcome some long-held prejudices about work that takes place in informal spaces, and think about how these mechanisms can be harnessed for learning.