This section of The Library is dedicated to exploring the concept of “alternative texts” in the context of middle & secondary English Language Arts classrooms. To effectively examine this topic several factors will be considered. First of all, acknowledging the advancements and rapid changes in technology will be crucial to not only gain a broader perspective of the notion of “text”, but also to aid in the understanding of students and their digital literacy. Secondly, it is necessary to explore the relationship between a text and teaching in a more general sense. It will also be useful to investigate alternative ways that students can respond to texts (rather than responding to alternative texts in traditional ways).
Ultimately, the focus for this page is to understand and explicate the criteria that determines what makes something a text, as well as how to decide whether that text is useful for addressing curriculum, and whether the text will be interesting and engaging for the students (and the teacher!) The posts in this section will consider the delicate balance of matching texts to lessons that complement one another. They will also discuss why it is important to use alternative texts types in the first place, and how using alternative texts does not mean throwing out our traditional texts.
Effectively Selecting an Alternative ELA Text
Deciding to bring alternative texts into your ELA classroom, and branch out from traditional texts can be a successful strategy for fostering student engagement and aiding in student understanding. However, selecting alternative texts is not as simple as choosing at random. Any text brought into the classroom should be done so with meaning and purpose, and should be supported throughout learning to emphasize its significance. This post will discuss the process of selecting an alternative text, the factors that should be considered, and how you can determine whether the text is ultimately supportive of student learning. For the purposes of this post, I will be referring to graphic novel adaptations of classic texts. However, the strategies used for determining the usefulness of this text type can be just as easily applied to any text, alternative or otherwise. I will also be contextualizing the discussion by applying it to BC’s New Curriculum for English Language Arts 9.
In his speech, “The Disappearance of Literature”, Mark Twain said that a classic text is one that “everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read” (Twain, 1900). He argues that being able to say you have read “the classics” comes with status or elitism, while the actual task of reading those texts takes more effort, or is too boring for the majority of people to actually commit to. Applying this thinking to current language arts classrooms, teachers may feel pressure to use the texts that carry with them the most intellectual status, but may in turn sacrifice student engagement or interest by relying on traditional texts alone. BC’s New Curriculum aims to provide education that is “student-centred and flexible”, and encourages teachers to “allow space and time for students to develop their skills and explore their passions and interests” (BC Ministry of Education, 2016). These goals, in addition to the curriculum not restricting choice of materials, allows for teachers to venture outside the traditional or classic canon for text selection.
Before considering text selection or building lessons using those texts, teachers should look to the curriculum to determine which learning outcomes they want their students to meet. Often teachers work in the opposite direction, by coming up with an idea and then trying to fit the curriculum to that idea. Another key element to choosing a text for a particular course is to identify how the curriculum defines “text” as a concept. BC’s New Curriculum defines “text” for English Language Arts 9 as being “a generic term referring to all forms of oral, written, visual, and digital communication” (BC Ministry of Education, 2016). This leaves options essentially wide open for ELA teachers to bring in any traditional or alternative text.
A goal for ELA 9 is to broaden student understanding of the notion of text and the significance of text features. This goal is illustrated by the following Big Ideas:
- “Texts are socially, culturally, and historically constructed”
- “People understand texts differently depending on their worldviews and perspectives”
These ideas are both focused on analyzing the transaction between reader and text, considering what contexts influence texts, as well as acknowledging that each individual reader has their own perspectives impacting their interpretation (BC Ministry of Education, 2016).
With this in mind, we can then move on to find some Curricular Competencies that complement the Big Ideas we have highlighted. In this case we can focus on:
- “Recognize an increasing range of text structures and how they contribute to meaning”
- “Recognize and appreciate how different features, forms, and genres reflect different purposes, audiences, and messages”
These competencies are interested in students’ ability to think about the structures and features of texts and consider how those contribute to meaning. Students are encouraged to think about the notion of text somewhat metacognitively. Instead of trying to analyze only the content, students are analyzing the physical characteristics and features of text, understanding that social, cultural, and historical contexts, as well as human worldviews also play significant roles in the development of a text’s meaning.
With all of that said, the Content Areas that can be focused on are:
- Forms, functions, and genres of text
- Text features
- Reading & Metacognitive Strategies
The Content Areas fall somewhat naturally into place once the Big Ideas and Curricular Competencies are determined. Of course, for each lesson or assignment it would not be necessary to outline multiple standards from each category. For this example though, the teacher’s goal is for students’ to have an understanding of the significance of text features, context, and perspectives, so there were a plethora of learning outcomes to choose from.
Domains of Learning
Now that we have chosen the areas of the ELA 9 curriculum to focus our attention on, the next step is to consider the type of text that will be the most engaging for students while also being an effective choice for student learning. There are three major domains of learning that should be examined: cognitive, psychomotor, and affective. To illustrate the process, I will use a specific graphic novel adaptation of a classic text as an example. The text I will assess is The Complete Alice in Wonderland, by Leah Moore, John Reppion, and Erica Awano. This is a graphic novel inspired by the novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.
The cognitive domain of learning includes “the development of intellectual skills” ranging from “simplest behaviour to the most complex” (Bloom, 1956). While there are six categories within this domain, and students must master the simplest, or first category before they can move on to more complex skills, not every text will address every category (Bloom, 1956). In the case of The Complete Alice in Wonderland, the simplest category, “Remember” is not a focus. However, the other five are all addressed in their own way. By presenting a traditional text in a graphic novel format, students may have an easier time interpreting and discussing the content. That is, the alternative quality of the text may assist in student “Understanding” (Bloom, 1956). As well as this, students are likely familiar with the story of Alice, even if they have never read the original novel, so they can take their understanding of the text via the graphic novel and then “Apply” that understanding by making connections to other adaptations or versions of the text (Bloom, 1956). From there, students would be encouraged to “Analyze” the purpose of adapting a classic text at all, and then “Evaluate” what makes an adaptation successful, are some adaptations better than others, and why? Ideally, students could then address the final and most complex skill of the cognitive domain, by tackling “Create”. Students could brainstorm other classic texts that would benefit from an adaptation (graphic novel or otherwise) and use writing, design, and storyboard processes to demonstrate the highest level of understanding (Bloom, 1956).
For graphic novels in general, only three categories of the psychomotor learning domain are particularly relevant. Because the psychomotor domain involves developing “psychical movement, coordination, and use of the motor-skill areas”, traditional and even alternative texts that still take the form of a book do little to build these skills (Simpson, 1972). However, teachers can use a “Guided Response” strategy of providing students with ample exemplar texts, templates of storyboarding, and multiple opportunities for students to give analysis and creation a go before submitting a final draft or publishable product.
The third learning domain is the affective, which as the name implies, is focused on emotional influences “such as feelings, values, appreciation, enthusiasms, motivations, and attitudes” (Krathwohl, 1956). If students are provided with an option of which classic text they wish to find adaptations of and expand upon, then they can cover the skill of “Receiving”. Students then “Respond” by interacting and transacting with their selection, “actively participating” with it in various ways (Krathwohl, 1956). Students may be asked to reflect on their exploration of adaptations, making personal and subjective judgments of texts, and thereby cover the “Value” category. If students can then synthesize their comparisons and carry their values to other text exploration, they are demonstrating the higher level “Organization” and “Internalization” skills (Krathwohl, 1956).
For the example of graphic novel adaptations of classic and traditional texts, the alternative option supports different levels of thinking and learning. The vibrant and extensive illustrations may aid in student interpretation; students can apply their understanding through making connections to other texts or other versions of adaptations. The teacher should guide analysis by asking students to consider what the purpose of adapting a text is, and then evaluating if one adaptation type is better than another. This would help students to develop their metacognitive thinking strategies. Students will then be able to transform their learning by means of creation – brainstorming, storyboarding, and potentially producing an adaptation of their own.
Text Features and Selection Criteria
After considering the curricular and learner contexts, the next question to ask when trying to select a text is how does it meet textual criteria in terms of content, format, utility, and style? An instructor can likely go through these categories rather quickly. Where I see value is bringing this text selection process into the classroom itself and having students be involved in the discussion. This is an especially important habit to get into if you want to provide students with the opportunity to select their own texts.
When considering a text’s content, the types of questions a teacher or student should be asking is whether or not the content does in fact complement the curriculum. As mentioned earlier, BC’s New Curriculum is relatively lenient in text selection, so in most cases this should be an easy category to cover. Where we can narrow things down is in how current a text is; this is especially significant when selecting texts that have historical contexts. The Complete Alice in Wonderland was published in 2010 and this information could be useful if you are interested in seeing how an overly adapted text evolves over time. Another aspect of a text’s content is whether or not it reflects a balance between depth and breadth; determining this would be largely influenced by each individual class’s needs. A graphic novel may be more accessible in terms of its extensive use of illustrations, but may also be more challenging if students are unfamiliar with the features of graphic novels (such as gutter space, speech bubbles, etc). Teachers should also always consider how a text would connect with students’ prior knowledge as this will help them to determine whether the text is appropriate overall.
Another aspect of textual criteria is its format. This encompasses elements such as whether a text includes graphic aids and how the information is organized. For the graphic novel example, it would also be useful to analyze whether the white gutter space between panels is challenging or supportive for student learning. Along with that, comparing graphic novels that use panels to move plot along, versus full splash pages which transition with the physical movement of flipping a page. How do these differences in layout impact students’ understanding? How is text actually arranged on the page in a graphic novel and how does that compare to traditional novels (or even novels with illustrations, like the original Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland).
Some texts include extra information, peripheral to the main content, often located at the back (when the text is a bound book) – this aspect of textual criteria is a text’s utility. For The Complete Alice in Wonderland, following the last page of the text, there is a table of contents outlining a selection of bonus material (Moore et al, 2010). This bonus material includes a collection of poems by Lewis Carroll, a description of the writing and graphic process that went into making The Complete Alice in Wonderland, an interview with the creators, as well as promotional suggestions for further reading. As a teacher attempting to select texts for their class, this extra information is just as relevant as the main content. Even if they do not intend to utilize the material, they still should consider its potential for challenging or supporting student learning. In this case, the information regarding the writing and design process would likely be very helpful for students if they go on to brainstorm and storyboard their own adaptations.
The final aspect of textual criteria is style. This is the most important category for assessing whether students will find the text engaging or not. Features that should be considered are the cover (yes, you should judge the book by its cover in this case), the title page, font type and size, colour choices, and any other unique details. The Complete Alice in Wonderland has a dust jacket with cutouts in it, encouraging students to physically take it apart and see what is hidden under the dust jacket. The illustrations are the focus, with very little written text included at all. There is also a consistent colour theme that reflects the fantasy setting and mysterious tone. If students are selecting their own texts, they will likely make these decisions subconsciously; teachers can encourage students to be explicit in their thinking and judgments, resulting in more developed metacognitive strategies.
Overall, when selecting texts, the key question that teachers should ask themselves (and pose to their students) is what features of this text challenge learning, and which features support learning? With this, it is necessary also to consider the curricular and learner contexts to ensure that the text you choose is purposeful, and meaningful. This selection process applies to more than just “alternative” text selection, but it is integral when considering texts that are far outside the bounds of traditional modes. By following a detailed selection process, beginning with curriculum and always keeping student learning as the main goal, teachers can ensure success with even the most unconventional text selection.
Bloom, B.S. (Ed.) (1956) Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals: Handbook I, Cognitive Domain. New York; Toronto: Longmans, Green.
British Columbia Ministry of Education. (2016). The British Columbia curriculum grade 9: English Language Arts. Retrieved from https://curriculum.gov.bc.ca/curriculum/english-language-arts/9
Krathwohl, D., Bloom, B., & Masia, B. (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: Handbook II: Affective Domain. New York: David McKay.
Moore, Leah, John Reppion, Erica Awano, and Lewis Carroll. The Complete Alice in Wonderland. Runnemede, NJ: Dynamite, 2010. Print.
Simpson, E. J. (1972). The Classification of Educational Objectives in the Psychomotor Domain. Vol. 3. Washington, DC: Gryphon House.
Twain, Mark. “The Disappearance of Literature.” 20 November 1900. Speech.
Navigating the Memescape
When I think about the types of texts I would like to incorporate in my classroom, I often find myself thinking about the importance of digital literacy and the texts that are representative of those students are faced with everyday on their various devices. Not only does it seem of obvious significance to utilize online text types to try and increase student engagement, but students should also be aware of their presence online in interacting with these text types. Memes have stood out to me in the recent years due to their apparent simplicity and yet multilayered intertextuality. For the purpose of this paper, I want to look at the history of the concept of a meme and how it has evolved over time, the social and cultural relevance to understanding memes, as well the necessary component of virality (how likely the meme is to “go viral”).
When I began this project, I questioned my own understanding of memes. I found myself unable to provide a definition that I felt was all encompassing of what memes represent. The examples that come to mind as nearly all images with captioned text, but what makes that a meme? Not all images with captioned text are memes, so how can we tell the difference? How do we seem to inherently know? Can everyone distinguish a meme that easily? I have never myself created a meme, but I have shared plenty, have had just as many shared with me, and I have seen a myriad more in my own Internet browsing time. But I could not seem to define the essential elements of a meme.
The History and Evolution of the Meme
I began my research simply and discovered that the term “meme” actually dates back as far as 1976 (Jordan, 2014). Considering that the Internet was not actually established until the mid 80’s, and not widespread until the 90’s, I was naturally a little surprised that a word like “meme”, so inextricably tied with social media, actually predated the Internet altogether. In his article, Jordan discusses the history of the meme concept. He notes that Richard Dawkins coined the term in his book, “The Selfish Gene”, as a way of explaining, “why some behaviours, from an evolutionary perspective, seem to make no sense but [are] found to be very common in human societies” (Jordan, 2014). Dawkins looked at human behaviour such as “devoting oneself to art, impoverishing oneself in the pursuit of Truth, or welcoming martyrdom” and was unable to account for the fact that these actions are not “obviously beneficial to the individual or for the spread of that individual’s genes” (Jordan, 2014). Dawkins argued that every person has many ideas in ones mind, and those ideas are often in conflict with one another (Jordan, 2014). The process of some ideas winning out over others is evidence of some kind of “selection process going on, analogous to natural selection” (Jordan, 2014). The term meme is derived from the Greek for “imitated thing” – Dawkins coined the term to represent his notion that ideas behave like viruses, “indifferent to the welfare of the hosts and the only thing that counts is that they persist” (Jordan, 2014).
Dawkins attempted to succinctly define a meme as “a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation” (Jordan, 2014). As Jordan notes in his discussion of Dawkins however, this definition is problematic in that it applies to such a wide variety of concepts, without any additional qualifiers or requirements of understanding (Jordan, 2014). Jordan argues “it is dangerous to simplify complex phenomena into models, without attaching very strong caveats”, noting that this is especially true of concepts which are influenced by “numerous and often unknown variables” (Jordan, 2014). Therefore Jordan offers an alternative approach to defining the meme by arguing it is a means for understanding “how ideas, and particularly bad ideas can spread so effectively in a culture” (Jordan, 2014). Jordan still acknowledges Dawkins’ original argument that human behaviour is often seemingly absurd and against Darwinian theory of natural selection, and so we need a concept to assist us in describing that phenomena. Unfortunately, Dawkins’ theory that the ideas we have are like viruses and can compel our actions for their own benefit is a theory that has been thoroughly criticized as being “poorly defined and totally unscientific” (Jordan, 2014).
This article effectively addresses the history of Dawkins meme. The irony that emerges from reading this article is that Dawkins was fully aware and acknowledged that memes “may evolve as alchemy evolved into chemistry” and that they are “subject to outside influences” (Jordan, 2014). Dawkins own meme has itself evolved and been influenced over time, transforming into an almost entirely new concept altogether.
Social and Cultural Contexts
The concept of the meme as put forth by Dawkins is entirely relevant in our understanding of the modern meme, despite the application being so vastly changed. Now, the meme is almost universally understood to be an “image macro” or “an image with captioned text” (Wiggins et al, 2015). While Dawkins described memes as being “inherently selfish and virulent, competing to infect individual minds”, the current meaning of memes is more closely related to a textual genre, “not a unit of cultural transmission” (Wiggins et al, 2015). If we take a specific image macro meme example, such as Condescending Wonka, the image and text combination does not infect viewers with information viruses, so much as it “acts as [a] catalyst for cultural developments” (Wiggins et al, 2015).
In their paper, Wiggins et al define the modern meme, or the Internet meme (most often associated as an image macro), as “spreadable media that have been remixed or parodied…[and] are then iterated and spread online” (Wiggins et al, 2015). A necessary component of examining memes as a text then is their “notion of virality”, or their ability or tendency to spread quickly across online communities (Wiggins et al, 2015). The paper also focuses on memes as a “genre”, a compilation of connected creative formations, rather than a single example; this accounts for the variability of memes, and the mutations that occur within specific memes over time. Understanding memes as a genre does not imply “simply a formula followed by humans to communicate” rather, the authors argue that the genre of memes is a “complex system of social motivations and cultural activity” that represent both the communication between members and the “impetus for that communication” (Wiggins et al, 2015).
A key element of this paper is the discussion of the relationship between Internet memes and the socio-cultural groups that create and share them. The authors purport that “Internet memes exist as artifacts of a participatory digital culture” (Wiggins et al, 2015). They define this landscape as one in which all participants are encouraged to engage in “artistic expression”, where there is “strong support for creating and sharing” and a landscape which offers mentorship, at the very least informally, “by the most experienced…to novices” (Wiggins et al, 2015). The concept of a participatory digital culture can apply to the Internet as a whole, although it may be easier to see evidence of encouragement, support, and mentoring in more defined Internet communities, such as website forums or social media platforms to name a couple. Either way, the paper further states that memes exist in these spaces as “artifacts” which possess “both cultural and social attributes as [the memes] are produced, reproduced, and transformed to reconstitute the social system” (Wiggins et al, 2015). When we study memes as a text then, we are also studying the cultural and social contexts those memes exist within (however those barriers may be defined – not necessarily city or country boundaries). Memes are inextricably linked to the creators and spreaders of them and there is an “interactive relationship between [memes], the agent, and the social system” (Wiggins et al, 2015).
Understanding the Relationship Further
If we acknowledge and accept the interactive relationship between a meme, its creator, and the community of members who share memes, it is important to assess that relationship and consider the possible impacts of that relationship overall. In a short work by Guadagno et al, the authors analyzed the emotional factors that impact whether or not media “goes viral” and what that correlation suggests (Guadagno et al, 2013). First of all, this paper defines a meme as being media “transmitted throughout a population via social learning” and notes, “most memes are intended to provide humour or social commentary” (Guadagno et al, 2013).
Why do we find memes funny at all? It is a difficult, if not impossible, question to answer but one that should be considered especially if we are choosing to create or share memes of our own. What messages can memes carry with them? At one point does humour cross a line into a territory of insensitivity, ignorance, or intolerance? The authors of this paper consider how various types of socializing impact relationships between community or group members. They argue, “establishing similarity through a shared emotional experience can increase closeness and liking”, emphasizing that it is the emotional aspect that strengthens bonds between people (Guadagno et al, 2013). They go on to clarify that it does not seem to matter if the emotions experienced and shared are positive or negative however; for example they suggest “sharing positive emotions through social talk helps form and reinforce coalitional bonds” but also note that individuals of an “in-group” collaboratively attacking members of an “out-group” together “can serve to bolster positive perceptions of the in-group” (Guadagno et al, 2013). In the discussion of memes and other spreadable media, this understanding of relationship building is crucial to preventing online bullying. When creating, sharing, or viewing memes it should be done with a critical eye, asking the sorts of questions outlined above. Why is this funny? Is it funny at someone else’s expense? If I share this with another person, what community am I establishing myself as being a part of, and whom am I in turn excluding?
The paper further addresses the relationship between memes and the creators or sharers of memes by suggesting that the “proliferation of Internet memes” may be attributed to individuals’ need for “social validation” (Guadagno et al, 2013). As discussed, by sharing memes with other members of our digital society, we establish the components of that culture, and form bonds in the process. We also feel validated by that social group when the meme we create or share is “liked”, “retweeted”, or “goes viral” as it suggests that we are successful in connecting to our digital community. The nature of the internet, “the ease with which information can be transmitted” also lends itself to the rapid spread of media and allows for what the authors refer to as “emotional contagion” to exist (Guadagno et al, 2013).
The Big Ideas of Memes
When considering how memes can be effectively incorporated into the English Language Arts classroom now, I think about three major aspects of memes that arose during my research. First, to understand where the modern meme is now we need to have a grasp on where it came from and how it has evolved over time; this will also allow us to look ahead at how the concept may mutate in the future. Second, the relationship between memes and the people who create and use them is crucial in understanding the depth of intertextuality in each and every meme. Just as with every text, memes are situated in their social and cultural contexts – it is worth assessing the relationship between those contexts and the relationship between memer and meme explicitly when attempting an analysis of memes. The third aspect that I think is worth addressing is a theme that came up in all of my research but was not thoroughly covered to my satisfaction, and that is the virality of memes. Each article that I reviewed mentioned the essential meme element of spreadability – the potential to “go viral”, and yet did not offer much in the way of explanation as to why some media is more likely to spread rapidly than others, or why some memes seem to be more long-lasting than others.
In my further research into the application of memes in the English Language Arts classroom, I would be interested in looking at the nature of virality, as well as defining more clearly the different types of Internet memes that we see currently being used (for example, there appears to be a category of memes which are reliant on pop culture, sports, and/or celebrity reference knowledge, while another category of memes exist which lack that level of intertextuality). I am also particularly interested in how studying memes fits into a larger unit on digital literacy and media awareness, allowing students to develop skills in assessing bias, rhetoric, and propaganda. Overall, I think memes would offer a great deal of affordances to students and teachers in increasing engagement and interest, as well as allowing the student to take more of a leadership role in the teaching or mentoring of other students. Some potential challenges with incorporating memes may be the accessibility if teachers expect students to be able to search for memes outside of class time, the other challenge would be ensuring that the memes that students bring in, refer to, or emulate in their own work are appropriate and do not attack other students or groups of people. Overall however, I believe that the possibilities for rich class discussion and hands-on student engagement are overwhelmingly positive to the teacher and students alike. I look forward to exploring these possibilities in detail in my next post.
Guadagno, R. E., Rempala, D. M., Murphy, S., & Okdie, B. M. (2013). What Makes a Video
Go Viral? An Analysis of Emotional Contagion and Internet Memes. Computers in
Human Behaviour, 29 (6), 2312-2319.
Jordan, M. (2014, February 04). What’s In a Meme? Retrieved from
Wiggins, B. E., & Bowers, G. B. (2015). Memes as Genre: A Structurational Analysis of the
Memescape. New Media and Society, 17 (11).