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Can podcasts bring us all together?

Not so long ago, friends might have rambled about great ideas for books or films, if they only had the time, financial backing or support crew to get the project done.  These days, people are just as likely to dream up ideas for podcasts.  

A 2019 study found that podcasts have continued to grow in popularity, with 15% of Australians listening to a podcast in the week leading up to the study.  That may not sound like a lot, but it equates to just under 4 million people, and has increased each year.   This rather enormous infographic, compiled by the ABC, communicates a wide range of trends and patterns amongst listeners.  It states that some of the most popular reasons people like listening to podcasts are to be entertained, to learn new things, and for the format’s flexibility.  And why are podcasts so engaging?  Perhaps it’s the intimacy of audio, or the idea that the unique storytelling productions of podcasts – rather than straight audio narration traditionally found in audiobooks – is more emotionally and intellectually arousing, and therefore more addictive.  

This applies to young people, too. 

In 2017, a study found that children engage deeply with podcasts, sometimes listening repeatedly to the same episode, and initiating discussion or play based around the podcast content. 

kid headphonesThere seems to be room to play with the form, too, in order to attract and hold onto the ears of young listeners.  For example, Six Minutes uses a range of voice actors to present a tension-filled narrative, rather than traditional single-voice narration.  Short and Curly promotes discussion and interaction, inviting listeners to “hit pause” and consider their own positions on ethical problems.  And Fierce Girls hands the podcasting reins to kids, allowing young voices to present life stories of inspirational women.  

When considering if podcasts are healthy for children or not, the form enjoys the kind of clear air that screen entertainment will never experience.  Audio media is rarely considered a problem, probably because it really only requires one of our senses, and we can do other things while listening.  There is even the idea that listening to podcasts resembles the cosy communal listening experience of the wireless, enhanced by the modern flexibility of choosing when and where we listen.  And in an increasingly isolating world, the concept of communal listening may bring people together, as evidenced by podcast listening parties.   

This could be the form’s greatest strength – the idea of a family huddled around a smart speaker, engaged, captive, listening together; merely a updated version of oral storytelling.

This may be nothing more than a romantic notion, as some argue podcasts have either destroyed communal listening, or have killed music.  But I hold out hope, as the aforementioned ABC survey shows that communal podcast listening is most likely to be enjoyed by younger audiences.  I’m a fan, and I reckon there’s a lot of potential for podcasts to be great for kids – they’re flexible, often informative, and, most importantly, they can stop your family strangling each other on road trips. 

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Want to get listening?  Follow the link below.

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It’s a Shame About Rey

Back in 2013, the animated Disney musical Frozen took over the world.  At least, it took over the world of young girls, and its soundtrack nearly destroyed their parents.  One dramatic chorus at a time, the songs poured out of bedrooms, thundered down hallways and flooded houses, sweeping aside all foolish hopes for a quiet weekend. 

It was a massive hit for Disney, a fairytale inspired by Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen that remains one of the most successful animated musicals ever (beaten only by The Lion King this year).  Of course, it sold a heap of merchandise, too, sometimes leading to desperate acts of parenting one would normally associate with, say, a shortage of food or water.  

For some mums and dads, tolerating the music and fighting other parents for plastic dolls was merely another episode in the lifelong drama of giving kids what they want.  For others, there was something deeper at play, for Frozen delivered a powerful message, absorbed by all the little girls belting out Let It Go in front of the mirror.  The message was this: girls don’t need a guy to fix everything. 

After so many woeful representations of girls, did Disney really produce a feminist fairytale?  Apparently so, and it gave many of us a reason to surrender control of the car stereo to the five-year-old girl sitting in the back seat, biscuit crumbs all over her frilly blue Elsa dress, banana mashed into her white Elsa gloves.  

A few years later, Disney delivered another character to impress both young girls and their socially conscious parents.  This time, she arrived on board the most unlikely of franchises, Star Wars.  The series is traditionally celebrated by boys, and its main female character from previous episodes, Princess Leia, was famously objectified, detracting from the many positive qualities she had demonstrated in the original two films.  

This time, in 2015, Disney got it right.  The Force Awakens introduced us to a female hero who, like Elsa, had depth and complexity, but was tougher, less traditionally feminine, and went by a one-syllable name, Rey.  She was smart, witty, and could fly the Millennium Falcon after only a few seconds in the pilot seat. 

Hermione was the brains in the Harry Potter trio, Elsa had cool powers, but Rey was the perfect hero. 

She had the most thrilling adventures, didn’t need to break into song, and an epic narrative now centred on her and her mysterious back story.  Oh yeah, and she had the Force.  

star wars girl

The character was a screenwriting masterstroke, opening the franchise to girls without resorting to stereotype, and grown-ups were excited, too.  It was therefore perplexing when department store merch failed to take advantage, as Rey was conspicuosly absent from the toy section. The film’s hero was left out of figurine sets and the official Monopoly game, prompting a minor global protest movement called #WheresRey.  Everybody was confused, even the film’s director J.J. Abrams. Why open the Star Wars juggernaut to a new audience and not stick Rey’s face on every product imaginable?  And why is there so much stormtrooper merch?  Despite the armour, they can be knocked out by an Ewok with a rock. 

Four years later, and the final film in the latest trilogy (ninth chapter in the whole narrative) is about to hit cinemas.  Rey is still the hero, and the question of her family and the origins of her powers remains the compelling focus of the story.  But will she feature more prominently in the toy department?  A quick look through the official Star Wars online store suggests we’ll be disappointed.  There are loads of products inspired by droids, wookies and Darth Vader, the villain from 40 years ago.   And the female heroes?  Well, you can buy a Princess Leia headband, to pull off her iconic hairstyle.  Then there’s a blurry picture of Rey behind an image of a shoulder bag, created by a French designer that eleven-year-old girls couldn’t care less about.  That’s it.

Let’s hope the store is updated by the time we find out all the answers about Rey in December.   

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P.S. The title of the post is a reference to this early 90s Lemonheads song.  It has nothing to do with Star Wars, but here’s a live TV version featuring four guitarists, when the Lemonheads usually had only one.  Enjoy.

How do young people discover new music?

Mid-90s.  My bedroom. The radio was on – 107.7.  I was too cool for most of the Triple J playlist but occasionally I’d discover something interesting wedged between Pollyanna and Tool.  That afternoon, a song hit me; noisy, swirling, and melodic.  It sounded perfect to my ears.  The announcer said the band was called Rollerskate Skinny.  Even the name was perfect – a phrase from J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (which I wasn’t quite cool enough to know yet). 

Now I just had to find the song again.  It wasn’t likely Triple J would play it again any time soon.  It wasn’t that sort of song.  And I wasn’t about to ring the station to request it.  I wasn’t that sort of teenager.  I could stay up all night in the hope Rage might show the clip, but that was a time-consuming, sleep-depriving long shot. 

There was only one way I would ever hear that song again.  I’d have to wait weeks, probably months, until the next time I visited one of my older siblings in Brisbane, and hope they’d take me to the independent record shops in the city. 

I was sure they’d have the CD, and if not, they could order it for me.  The wait wasn’t such a bad thing.  It gave me time to save up some money, and to build the legend of Rollerskate Skinny in my head.  

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Young people no longer discover music in quite the same way. There may be times when their ears are in proximity to a traditional radio station, but they have probably already heard whatever spills from the speakers.  If it’s a song they like, there’s a good chance it has already been recommended to them – perhaps by a friend, often by an algorithm.  

In Australia, Spotify is by far the most accessed radio or music site, and a major feature of the service is its recommendation algorithm, directing listeners to “similar artists”.  The Spotify algorithm may hit the right notes sometimes, but whenever something as unpredictable and elusive as music taste is reduced to data, something will be lost.  The biggest disadvantage to the listener is that there are no surprises.  Spotify wants you to listen to more of the same, as the algorithm will not suddenly direct a hip-hop fan to give Elvis a spin.  Any serious music fan – and many teenagers are – will pride themselves on a varied music taste that Spotify recommendations cannot deliver. 

The algorithm not only lets young people down, some argue it has influenced popular songwriting.  Long intros have been shelved for quicker choruses, popular songs are sounding more and more alike, and people like Ed Sheeran have decided that eight versions of a song are better than one, in order to latch onto various Spotify playlists. 

And despite claims that Spotify has created a more democratic and flourishing music industry, it’s difficult to see how fringe and obscure artists can get a foothold without sneaking onto a Sunday Morning Post-Workout Chill Out Beach Vibe playlist. 

It is therefore not surprising that young people use many avenues to stumble into new favourite artists.  In the US, 20% of young people (aged 12-24) name Spotify as the space in which they discover new music, although they were still more likely to rely on family and friend recommendations.  Many artists are discovered on Youtube, sometimes through traditional music videos, and Youtube has its own recommended video roll to reflect and shape preferences.  Also, the music may be discovered in the background to something else, like makeup tutorials or aesthetic videos.  Then there is this story, that reports young people finding music through a rich variety of ways – radio, friends, streaming, social media, – or using a combination of platforms to delve into the tastes of the artists themselves.  

There are many access points for new music today, and the listening experience has completely changed.  Young people no longer have to wait for the music they want, and rarely have to pay for it.  There are arguments about what this means for the industry, especially artists, but one thing hasn’t changed.  No matter how they find their favourite music –  streaming, social media or losing hours in a record shop – the music young people listen to has a huge impact on their lives.  The soundtrack will stay with them forever.  

Just like Rollerskate Skinny. 

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Do teens still need magazines?

What’s your idea of a magazine?  Is it a flimsy, glossy pile of trash you flick through in the waiting room, as you drink your guilty fill of celebrity gossip?  Or is it a beautiful, pastel-toned guide to interior design, showing you exactly how to transform your dank hovel into a light-filled studio apartment? 

It’s quite likely you’ve thumbed the pages of a magazine lately, as magazine readership increased in Australia in 2018. 

We spend $603 million each year on magazines, from That’s Life to Inside Golf and Quilters Companion. This might sound surprising, as any print-based media is supposed to have died a quiet death by now, or at least be gasping for air. 

But of course, magazines have evolved to survive in the modern media world – they are sometimes print objects, sometimes digital, often both.  Many of us may read an online magazine without knowing it’s a magazine. Giraffe

But how do young people feel about magazines?  We know the number of teenagers reading for pleasure is in decline.  It is therefore safe to assume that magazine readership among young people is waning, too, as interacting with a magazine is rarely anything but a ‘reading for pleasure’ activity.  Teenagers have other things to do, and those things usually involve a screen or three.   

A significant sign of the declining health of teen magazines arrived in 2016, when Dolly had its final print run. Dolly has served its readers in several ways over the years, but most importantly through its popular Dolly Doctor section, which provided teen girls (and their little brothers sneaking into their bedrooms) with advice on health, sex and relationships.  Dolly Doctor – and the magazine itself – is still available online, but there is the risk it may have melted into the ocean of teen advice sites, most of which are not held in as high esteem by medical professionals.  

But apart from healthy sex advice for teenage girls, it’s worth considering what a magazine can offer young people.  Some researchers argue that the content of the most popular magazines for teenage girls has remained unchanged for decades, providing little more than superficial beauty tips and celebrity gossip.  There’s also the issue of gender, and how publishers treat boys and girls differently.  ‘Teen boy mag’ is hardly a genre, implying that boys can simply read according to their interests, not their age.  Why don’t we treat girls the same way?  And why do only girls’ publications focus on sex and relationship advice, while the boys indulge in their surfing mags? 

Teenage boys need advice, too, and they have awkward questions of their own – this has rarely been addressed in magazines aimed at the youth demographic.

All of this points to bigger issues about the ways in which society expects teenagers to develop, and magazine publishers have enormous power and responsibility in this regard. 

birdStill, there are teen mags that are claiming a higher ground.  Teen Vogue considers itself a voice for political activism in a world of unreliable news, information and leadership.  In Australia, Teen Breathe offers a very modern take on the teen mag, promoting mindfulness and self-acceptance with its slogan, Be happy, Be brave, Be kind, Be yourself.  Illustrations adorn the covers, instead of pouting models.  Founded in the US, Bright Lite describes itself as a reader-generated multi-platform publication that focuses on a different theme each edition, offering a safe space for young people to share their work.  

These few examples (plus all of these) show that teen magazines are still alive, and changing shape.  There are some strides being made to address the superficiality of the past, though many issues, especially around gender, still remain.  

 

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Building a strong reading culture

The role of teacher-librarian has many branches, from information literacy, to inquiry learning, and managing the collection.  I’ve decided to narrow my lens on one very important aspect of the role: building a strong reading culture in schools.

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In order to learn more about this, I posed a question on Twitter and Facebook.  I asked if any teacher-librarians (or anybody interested) could give me one idea they had implemented that had a positive effect on the reading culture of their school.  The response was overwhelming.  I was expecting a small handful of ideas, but instead I was inundated with an enormous range of ideas from enthusiastic teacher-librarians from Australia and overseas.  I knew teacher-librarians were wonderfully committed and keen people, but I never quite expected such generosity and willingness to share expertise. 

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My initial intention was to collate the ideas into a simple infographic to share, however it soon became clear that this would not suffice.  Instead, I’ve grouped the ideas into six categories: Reading, Events, Programs, Relationships, Students and Environment.  Some of the ideas overlapped, so I’ve tried to fuse them together, in order to fit as many ideas as possible.  

Huge thanks to everybody who responded with their ideas.  

Here they are:

Reading culture heading

Michael Rosen’s reading culture tips

I’ve often latched onto writers or artists not only for their work but for what they say about their craft and their field of expression.  I never tire of hearing Paul Kelly talk about songwriting.  I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read this George Saunders article about what writers do.  There are a bunch of Kurt Vonnegut quotes about art and writing that have remained on high rotation in my mind since I was nineteen. 

 

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Then there’s Michael Rosen, author, poet and former UK Children’s Laureate.  He has written some wonderful books and he’s very passionate about reading for pleasure.  Years ago, I was excited to stumble upon this clip, in which he expresses the value of reading for pleasure.

 

 

Now, as I aim to discover ideas about developing a strong reading culture in schools, I have found another Michael Rosen gem: twenty tips for creating a book-loving school. 

Take a look:

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This is an incredibly comprehensive list.  It would be wonderful for schools to implement them all, but it might be more realistic to pick a few goals at a time.  I love some of the more unique ideas, such as collecting odd, old books for the library, to make reading a bit more intriguing.  The simple ideas are just as powerul, like reading widely and sharing conversations about books.  

I wonder if you have a favourite tip from this list?  Or if you think there’s something missing?

 

From author to teacher-librarian

First I was a primary school teacher.  Then I became a children’s author and illustrator.  Now I want to be a teacher-librarian.  I’ve packed away my writing and drawing pencils (for now), and I’m studying a Masters in Education, majoring in teacher-librarianship, through Queensland University of Technology. 

turtle and bookFor years, my teaching experience has informed my work as an author.  It has helped me engage with children through stories, and given me the skills necessary to hold a crowd of six-year-olds during author visits (even on a Friday afternoon).  Now I want to explore how my life as an author can contribute to my potential career as a teacher-librarian.  How can the rather strange work habits of an author transfer to a position that is central to the educational experience of a whole school community?

The role of a teacher-librarian has obviously changed since my first teaching days.  Libraries now have digital resources, makerspaces, tinkering stations, hubs, robots, green screens and more.  Many of them are no longer called libraries.  This means teacher-librarians are constantly evolving, adapting to changing learning environments, like unstoppable (and very friendly) creatures, morphing from one shape into another at every turn.  It’s not only how they survive; it’s how they remain relevant and vital.  Teacher-librarians offer skills for students, teachers and parents, in ways that nobody else can replicate. They are information specialists, literature experts, and – my favourite description – perfectly positioned as school leaders who “hold the keys to the creativity pig and ipadkingdom” (Jones and Flint, 2013, p.175).

No wonder I want to be one.

My passion is children’s literature and the many wonderful things a good book can do for a child.  While I’m keen to dive into the aforementioned innovations, I can’t ignore my main motivation to become a teacher-librarian: to enhance the reading culture of a school and, in turn, develop the literacy skills and creativity of its students.  This is where questions start bubbling in my head, as I wonder how teacher-librarians already develop a strong reading culture in a school, and how the unique skills of an author might contribute to this.

I hope to understand some of these ideas by connecting with authors and teacher-librarians.  I want to find out what works, how to hurdle the obstacles, and what practices these professionals value most.  Also, I plan to share a few ideas of my own, tricks and techniques I’ve developed over the years that may hook children into reading and inspire them to write and be creative.  

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References

Jones, J.B., & Flint, L.J. (2013). Creative Imperative : School Librarians and Teachers Cultivating Curiosity Together. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, LLC.

Phillips, G., & Paatsch, L. (2011). The invisible librarian: why doesn’t literacy mention libraries? Practically Primary, 16(3), 31-33. Retrieved from https://www.questia.com/magazine/1G1-269690191/the-invisible-librarian-why-doesn-t-literacy-mention

Wall, J. (2016). Innovation and learning: where to from here? Access, 30(3), 30-39. Retrieved from https://search.informit.com.au/documentSummary;dn=348789033207842;res=IELHSS