Saturday, October 22, 2011

i-Documentary and i-Journalism

DVD cover
Nigel Marvin is the star of ITV's short-lived but long-remembered and well-preserved mockumentary mini-series, Prehistoric Park.  In the series, the intrepid Nigel speaks directly to the camera from back in time, where he has gone to capture prehistoric creatures and corral them in 21st Century.  His every move, and every fact that he knows related to the adventure at hand, is chronicled by a combination of "live action" camera and his present tense commentary.  A 3rd element is provided by voice-over narration, which moves omnisciently between past and present tense as the story timeline unfolds.

It is a powerful combination!  I have often wondered why our digital classrooms do not make use of this technique for informational projects.  Most students are natural hams; all students "see" the story they have researched along with learning its facts; in connecting to historical events and people, students move fluidly back and forth along a timeline which only partly includes themselves.  The i-Documentary is a powerful tool for learning, K-12.  Why is it so powerful?
  • research must be accurate and deep, or there is no content, no detail, to flush out the video and commentary - Nigel and the narrator must be credible and omniscient
  • it is fun - fun to make, fun to watch - and that makes for learning. There is something inherently comic about a student acted documentary, but also much underlying seriousness as students strive earnestly to convey their learning
  • it is personal and persuasive - in controlling the angles, lighting, framing, setting, etc., the student director is creating mood, tone - he is not just reporting, he is making a commentary about his topic
  • it uses tense to create tension, voice-over and dialogue to control pace and tone.  
This is good literacy practice and craft. The same four points can rarely be made about a middle or high school informational essay.

Graphical i-Journalism

Gregg Cook - "What we so quietly saw"
Nigel's tools are so good and so powerful, in fact, that serious journalists have adapted them into a graphic format that some call nonfiction picto-essays.  Others call it comics.  For some critics and creators, it is graphic novel.  I call i-Journalism, a subset of creative nonfiction.  By upgrading the name, the teacher can focus students on seriousness of purpose.  The best examples of this format use graphic arts - cartoon and comic - tools to retell and comment upon a personal or a serious event, or to make a social or cultural observation.  In a sense, they are the literal representation of the movies that run "in the head" of good readers of informational text.  Think of it this way: characters (real people) "speak in quotes" but also in facial expressions, actions, body language, dress, relationship to setting, proximity to objects and to other people.  These are the stuff of graphics.

Good journalistic creative nonfiction is based in the true and actual.  But it uses personalization, narrative, and a storytelling style in place of a dry, reportorial style.  I would recommend offering students some samples of contemporary creative nonfiction journalism along with i-Journalism texts.  Sources should be contemporary journals: New Yorker, Harpers, Sports Illustrated, Slate, and the fan mags that should be found in your school library. 

Students can, and should, read great examples of i-Journalism, with the caveat that the texts are personal and persuasive.  In this, they are more literary than journalistic.  They deserve to be examined not just for factual/historical references, but for their print and visual literacy.  Questions such as "What is the message?" and "How is this message developed?" must be asked. Students should attend to the text (tone, POV, voice, language), to speaker, to the persona of the cartoonist (who is always in the story), and to the graphic design of the panels themselves (color, angle, line, close-up, layout...).  It might be useful for students to read selections from one of David Kiersh's short Cartoon Talk commentaries.  He has interesting points to make about design elements and message.

Jarod Rosello, who uses Syncopated (see description below) as a text in teaching his writing course (syllabus), focuses students on this question: "How does this text help explain what it means to be human?"  I think that is one essential question.  Another might be: "How does this text function as a Call to Action?"

Neri - Yummy
A selection of i-Journalism titles for students - MS = not recommended for middle school
  • Bloody Sunday - This picto-essay tells the story of the massacre of the Wobblies, a Pacific Northwest labor event in 1916.  Compare the graphic essay to the Wikipedia article.  It is short and free, so it makes for a good introduction to both the historical event and the iJournalism form.
  • Comics and Art: a picto-essay is available for .99 from (Kindle edition - read using a Kindle, iPad, or other device with the free Kindle reader installed) - this is wonderful introduction to how and why the graphic format works
  • World Comics India is dedicated to using comics to inspire activism in rural villages - there is an excellent strip example in Comics Journalism
  • Syncopated: an anthology of nonfiction picto-essays ( - these short pieces range from the personalized report ("Penny Sentiments") to powerful reports on historical events ("Like hell I will" and "What we so quietly saw") and people ("West Side Improvements" - which can be the backbone of an entire HS unit when read with McCann's This Side of Brightness and Toth's The Mole People).  Please do not use "Welcome Home, Brave" - written by a non-Native, it is rife with offense even though the opposite is clearly its intention. A lukewarm review of the collection, a critical review, and a positive review might guide your selections.
  • AD: New Orleans after the deluge - Neufield (Amazon) - MS - follows 6 survivors of Katrina - read the author interview on the Amazon site
  • The Complete Persepolis - Satrapi (Amazon) - memoir of an Iranian girl-to-woman
  • Joe Sacco is, I think, the most powerful i-Journalist today.  MS - Available from Amazon: Palestine, Footnotes in Gaza, Safe Area Goradze, The Fixer and other stories, War's End (the last 3 are a Bosnia trilogy, all the more powerful in light of recent war crimes trials and reportage) - Journalism contains shorter pieces from the last 10 years
  • Guy Delisle's work is more like cultural commentary.  Available from Amazon: Pyongang: a journey in North Korea and Burma Chronicles
  • Deogratias: a tale of Rwanda - Stassen (Amazon) - MS (?) - the story of the Darfur genocide, which will be powerful if read, as I experienced it, with a viewing of Raindrops over Rwanda.
  • Yummy: the last days of a southside shorty - Neri (Amazon) - based on a true story of a Chicago youth's life and death, this would be a great pairing with Monster or other work by Walter Dean Myers, including his memoir Bad Boy
  • The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam - Fleming (Amazon) - an i-Journalism memoir of a Chinese immigrant who led a fascinating life that reflected the culture in which he lived - one of my favorites
  • A Secret History of Coffee, Coca & Cola - Cortes (Amazon) - exposé history of how Coke began and continues
  • We are on our own - Katin (Amazon) - another memoir, this one of escape from the Nazis, nice because it is by a woman author - obvious pairing with Once, Milkweed, Upstairs Room, Book Thief, Maus and other Holocaust titles
  • Waltz with Bashir: a Lebanon war story - Folman (Amazon) - MS (?) - Israeli - Lebanon war - this story has also been told by the author in an "animated documentary" film of the same title (Amazon), begging comparison
and more - The American Library Association gives a prize to Great Graphic Novels for Teens, which includes a nonfiction category.  Although most of these are not what I would call i-Journalism, a few are.  The current list (2012 nominations) includes i-journalism on Sacco and Vanzetti and Israel.  Previous lists include Yummy (gangs), Gettysburg, Trotsky, and more.

Next steps for teachers:
  • Find out what texts are in your library, classrooms and resource rooms.  Build a collection! 
  • Think of a way to embed the collection in your curriculum. 
  • Urge students to create "photo essays" or "graphic essays" of a journalistic nature.  Smart phones and flip cameras are perfect tools for this.  ComicLife is a perfect fit.  Upload to YouTube - Teacher.  
  • Announce your student work to EC Ning and, of course, to your parent community.

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