#MondayBlogs DAWN OF THE UNREAD Nottingham: City of Literature, City of Literacy

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The following article was published in Teaching English, Issue 14: Summer 2017

Nottingham – where this summer’s NATE Conference will be held – has been named a UNESCO City of Literature. David Belbin explains how the project aims to boost literacy in the city, and introduces the digital comic Dawn of the Unread, one of the ways in which the city hopes to bring Nottingham writers to a new generation, and encourage other cities to celebrate their local authors.  

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David Belbin in issue 14. Artist: Ella Joyce

UNESCO’s World Cities of Literature is a prestigious network for cities that combine literary heritage with outstanding present day creative activity. An author and educationalist, I chair the company that Nottingham set up to bid for the status and run the organisation should we win. City of Lit is a permanent designation. Few of us expected us to achieve accreditation at the first attempt. Fundamental to our surprising success was the company’s commitment to an area where we acknowledged the city was failing: literacy.

One of our board’s first big decisions was to become an educational charity. Nottingham has lots of great writing and literary events but, partly because our council area consists largely of the inner city and former council estates rather than the wider city, it also has below-average literacy rates. A year ago, when I attended an annual get-together of world cities of literature, I asked the others how they tackled literacy issues. I was surprised by the answer. They didn’t. Those who’d considered literacy had come to the conclusion that it was just too hard.

Literature and Literacy

We won UNESCO status in December 2015, making us one of a total of 20 World Cities of Literature. Within six months, we had raised enough money (via a partnership between the city council and our two universities) to hire a director. The City of Literature quickly became involved in the city council’s mission to improve literacy. We are a small organisation but wanted to act a hub for the city’s literacy efforts.

Dawn of the Unread: the background

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The USP of our UNESCO bid was the city’s strength in digital innovation. In particular, our bid talked about Dawn of the Unread, an online digital project by James Walker and Paul Fillingham, which used comics to bring Nottingham’s literary legends to a new generation.

James is a focused force of imagination who, in addition to teaching and writing, is the literary editor of local free monthly paper, LeftLion. He came up with the idea of Dawn of the Unread, raised the money (largely from Arts Council England), then put together combinations of writers and artists who ranged from their sixties to their teens.

The comics featured fifteen stories, published in the traditional monthly fashion. Playwright Michael Eaton got the most distinguished partner, artist Eddie Campbell (best known for illustrating Alan Moore’s Jack the Ripper opus, From Hell­). Campbell’s is one of a huge array of styles that range from former Judge Dredd artist Gary Erskine to illustrator Corrina Rothwell’s quirky figures and collages.

Sometimes James suggested the subject, but many writers chose their own. I, for example, wrote about my late friend and neighbour, the prolific novelist, Stanley Middleton, who won the Booker Prize for Holiday in 1974. As the story developed, I also included writers who had passed through Nottingham, like Graham Greene and JM Barrie, who found his inspiration for Peter Pan here. After his death, I inherited many of Stanley’s bookcases, and I ended the script with a set of shelves holding one book by every Nottingham novelist I knew of. Hence the title, Shelves.

James Walker paired me with eighteen-year-old Ella Joyce (daughter of novelist Graham, who I worked with on NTU’s MA in Creative Writing until his 2013 death), She did a fine, painterly job and is now studying Fine Art at Ruskin. Novelist Alison Moore (The Lighthouse) was paired with Corina Rothwell to portray Mary (The Spider and the Fly) Howitt. Nicola Monaghan (The Killing Jar) had her take on Hitchcock screenwriter (and wife) Alma Reville, illustrated by Judit Ferencz. Artist Conor Boyle drew poet Panya Banjoko’s story about George Africanus, Cartoonist John (Brick) Clarke came up with the art for his own story.

The Original Concept: Dawn of the Unread, libraries and reluctant readers

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Issue 11: Books and Bowstrings featured Geoffrey Trease and Robin Hood. 

Library closures were what inspired James to start Dawn of the Unread. Its first story was published on National Libraries Day in 2014. Paul Fillingham did the digital formatting. Dawn of the Unread’s website is, in part, an interactive experience. When you read the comic on a tablet or computer, you can go off on tangents, choosing your journey. There are embedded essays and videos, accessed by clicking on star icons that appear, together with web-links, on many pages. 120 students from Nottingham Trent University were involved with the project, which, in 2015, won first prize for Teaching Excellence at the Guardian’s education awards (it was also shortlisted by The Times education awards).

Underground legend Hunt Emerson illustrated DH Lawrence – Zombie Hunter. Zombies were there to draw the target audience (teenagers, and, in particular, reluctant readers) in. The series title Dawn of the Unread suggested that writers from the past are revived to help us in the present day. Zombies are used as a narrative conceit to raise awareness of what happens when people stop reading books. There were plenty of other sweetners. Poet Andy Croft, for instance, came up with Byron Clough, pairing two city legends, while Young Adult author Alan Gibbons managed to bring together our most famous children’s author, Geoffrey Trease, with Robin Hood.

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Taking the book into schools

While the stories were being published, James, along with some of the authors and illustrators, went into schools to talk about Dawn of the Unread. He was committed to producing a book of the stories which could get into schools and libraries. By the project’s end, however, there was little money left. Publishing a book, even if you have much of the content, is a time-consuming business. This is where the City of Literature came in.

James – a former City of Lit board member – gifted us the educational rights to Dawn of the Unread. He and I met with Spokesman Books, the Nottingham-based publishing arm of the Bertrand Russell Peace foundation. We agreed to jointly publish the book. The City of Lit devoted several thousand pounds from our Arts Council start-up grant towards printing costs. We also funded a development worker to go into schools, talk to teachers and look at how to use the book with students.

The book was published last November and free copies sent to all city libraries. We held back on sending it to schools until our strategy was in place. Rebecca Goldsmith’s brief was to develop resources for using Dawn of the Unread in schools and find ways to encourage schools and other places to make use of the book and website. We want to encourage schools to use the stories as a bridge between lessons, school libraries and independent reading. Teachers have been enthused about how the stories can act as a transition text from KS3 to KS4. We will shortly be producing a sample scheme of work with activity sheets, quizzes and interactive content that can be tailored to a school’s curriculum.

Using Dawn of the Unread

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Artwork Izaak Bosman 

Dawn of the Unread: the book provides all sorts of possibilities, most of which aren’t tied to its Nottingham content. It can, for instance, be used as a springboard for developing research into local landmarks and, indeed, dialect; as a starting point for discussions of language and register; and as a basis for numerous kinds of creative writing activity. The free availability of the digital version means that students can access it at home (with those additional starred embeds) and teachers can display it onscreen while students look at the book or a tablet.

Rebecca and Sandeep Mahal, director of the City of Literature, will be speaking at this year’s NATE conference in Nottingham. We hope to encourage teachers to use the book and its accompanying website in schools and give us their ideas about the best way to do this. One way, of course, is to get students exploring the literary heritage of their own area and create comics which use that heritage, with the DotU approach as a model. Students can make links with other cities of literature. We’d like to see DotU create paid work for authors and artists in schools.

Nottingham sums up its UNESCO mission in six words: building a better world with words. Part of that mission is to share work with the world. We have sent copies of the book to other cities of literature. We hope that our book will ensure Dawn of the Unread’s legacy: creating comics that celebrate literature, literacy, libraries and the written word.

Dawn of the Unread may be read online at www.dawnoftheunread.com. The Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature site is www.nottinghamcityofliterature.com. James Walker’s article on Dawn of the Unread and literacy can be found at leftlion.co.uk 

David Belbin is a novelist and Chair of Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature. His website is www.davidbelbin.com Twitter: @DBelbin   

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#MondayBlogs Bringing literature back into social media zombies lives

In his fourth guest blog, James Wood discusses how we can use Social Media and digital interaction as a new platform for literacy development.

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In my last blog I talked about how interactive media might be effecting literacy skills and becoming a problem of addiction for people. Well, what if I told you that, in some ways, it could actually be very beneficial for literacy skills as well? The Dawn of the Unread series has a YouTube channel with over 50 videos that include ‘how to create a comic’, and the Nottingham essay series. The app includes games and competitions that inspire proactive reading in young people. Moreover, the social media presence of Dawn of the Unread on Facebook, Twitter, Storify, Tumblr and, most recently, on Instagram (thanks to placement student Connie Adams) aim to have a positive effect on literacy levels. In using a wide variety of formats and platforms, the project offers numerous access points to all types of readers. The instagram blogs, for example, have a small synopsis under each image, so that education operates in small incremental ways. Used constructively, social media can create gateways into reading.

Dawn of the Unread’s online comics are an example of how literature is increasingly being published online and utilises interaction to enhance learning and concentration on reading. This use of the online world to publish books and texts of all kinds is dramatically on the increase. Digital downloads are a massive part of authorship and publication now, and by encouraging this, writers can broaden their reach and develop their own audiences. The interactive world is a massive part of the future, so why shouldn’t authors use it to their advantage? It’s great for engaging people who don’t often read, to be pulled in by online publications that interest them. It’s becoming increasingly easy to share and publish online, as well as advertise.

However, as my last blog suggested, some interactive media is a hindrance for literacy development, such as those cat videos that feed us with a rush of Dopamine! So what can be done to social media so that it educates and develops literacy skills?

Well for starters, adding more educational posts to social media sites, or even creating a bespoke social media site could help better direct learning. There may be room within the market for a kind of hybrid educational tool that blends the principles of Google scholar… but on Facebook. This will give online users the chance to filter their social media experiences to make them more educationally beneficial.

Another way interactive media could be used to educate young people and develop their literacy skills, is through games. Large numbers of young people play computer games or own a gaming console. This entertainment system could be adapted online to create games that are perfect for learning yet fun, without making the player feel they are just for educational purposes. This is an idea that has already been experimented with, for example the Dawn of the Unread app originally used games to encourage reading and set readers tasks that sent them across the city. (Now this functionality has been stripped out and the app just provides information on the literary figures featured in the comic.)

Pokemon Go is a game that many young people enjoy and spend many hours on, and the reason for this is they get a sense of achievement when they catch and build up their collection of Pokemon. Well what if a game could be created that produces a sense of achievement in ticking off books that you have read, that the game or app recommends? To find out more about how gaming is beneficial for learning and literacy, follow scholar and author James Paul Mcgee’s work or read his book What Video Games Have to Teach us about Learning and Literacy.

Using rewards which still provide that rush of Dopamine is another way the interactive world can encourage reading. Like with games, social media websites could provide online competitions for young people, such as taking a photo of you reading a book in an interesting place, writing a 100 word short story in which the winner gets their work shared and published, or other incentives. Or how about the reward of reading itself? Social media could encourage reading by rewarding young people for finishing a book, and online software could work to match young people to their literacy skill level so that they enjoy reading and develop at the same time. I once led a year 7 reading scheme which aimed to do that same thing. After a book was read by a pupil, they did an online quiz which helped to tailor individuals to their literacy level, and I saw students more engaged in reading as they were rewarded with a sense of accomplishment when they finished a book and got to move up a grade in difficulty as well as being merited by teachers for doing so.

Another problem is books are ‘going out of fashion’. However, some books such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, have always been in fashion, why is this? Well, it appeals to young people and creates a fan base as well as a trend in itself. The more time we spend online, the more we turn to ‘trending’ topics in order to help direct our leisure and learning. By sharing pictures of yourself reading on social media sites this would help to normalise reading and potentially help to make it a more attractive option for leisure. The hashtag #Fridayreads on Twitter is one such way in which readers from around the world are able to share their favourite books.

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Dawn of the Unread editor James Walker uses #FridayReads to keep a record of books he’s reading and posts a favourite quote from the book.

By using some of these methods it might be possible to re-established reading on these digital platforms. Some sites are already starting to do this. The digital world offers an infinite array of distractions, all vying for our attention. Therefore, it’s important that we find ways of scaffolding learning to help direct younger readers. Social media is full of words, people write posts, and others read those posts, it could even be argued that people are reading and writing more than ever, albeit in byte-sized chunks. But what is the nature of what they are reading? In the opinion of some, the content of social media websites is not educational. As someone who has helped mentor pupils in schools, I believe that tailoring social media experiences to become more academic, yet fun, is really important for their intellectual and emotional development. Interactive media is a major part of today’s society, and so we should explore ways to harness this engagement to help develop literacy levels. Dawn of the Unread editor James Walker is so appalled at literacy levels in the UK he described them as “a form of child abuse” in the project manifesto. If you have ideas on how we can address this together, or want to respond to this or other posts, please leave a comment. We are always listening.

Further reading:

#Mondayblogs The importance of being a reader

In his second guest blog James Wood, a voluntary reading mentor in schools, explains why he believes reading is so important to children’s development.

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In issue 1 of Dawn of the Unread we see a teenage boy in Nottingham bored of reading and unwilling to pay much for a book, but as soon as he discovers there are stories set in his home city, he is hooked on reading. This youth is also on his mobile phone, engaged in a world that is often seen to be annihilating serious reading once children reach adolescence. In today’s society, children and young adults spend more time reading snippets of information, such as skimming through online articles, status updates, and social media messages. This has led to concerns that millennials are finding it harder to engage with ‘deep’ reading, which has clear implications for our ability to concentrate.

Literacy levels in the UK have been seen to improve in recent years according to the National Literacy Trust, with roughly 86% of eleven year olds meeting a level 4 target in reading, with a lower 67% in writing. Although these levels do seem fairly good, its clear work is still needed to increase pupils reading and writing skills. In Nottingham, the statistics are a cause for worry, with only 77% of pupils gaining a level four or higher in level two SATs, the worst ranked city in the East Midlands with 79% being the average. This is also a national problem. Six out of ten teenagers in Nottingham are leaving school without five A* to C GCSE grades, including English and maths.

To help address this issue, Nottingham’s UNESCO City of Literature team has commissioned Rebecca Goldsmith, a freelance consultant, to develop Dawn of the Unread as an engagement tool for KS3 level. Editor James Walker said: “Legacy is the most important factor I take into consideration when putting together a project. Dawn of the Unread was the beginning of a conversation about the importance of reading, and the role of libraries and bookshops in the 21st century. To know that it is now being utilised to explicitly address literacy levels is something I am intensely proud of. Rebecca is absolutely perfect for this role given her previous work with organisations such as First Story.”

Another issue facing literacy levels in Nottingham is that there are less publishers in the Midlands than many other areas of the country as the UK book industry statistics 2015 suggest. The ambiguity of the future for Angel Row Library is another concern, after the selling off of the Central Library site in December 2016. But has this really got anything to do with the levels of people reading? According to the National Literacy Trust it is difficult to measure weather children today are reading less than in the past, as although literacy levels are on the increase, children don’t seem to read so much for enjoyment, but this is hard to prove. What seems clear is that it is becoming harder to engage pupils in reading inside and outside the classroom environment. I was involved in a reading scheme for Year 7’s a few years ago while studying my A levels, I was surprised how difficult it was to get children to concentrate on reading books. The children seemed more interested in the use of technology such as using social media and playing games on consoles and tablets. The interactive world is replacing books, this means new ways need to be found to engage children in literacy and reading. Schemes such as Dawn of the Unread work to achieve this by offering multiple ways into the text through a comic serial, embedded content, YouTube videos, an App, and of course, a physical book.

So why is reading so important? Well firstly, the 21st century, although an interactive world, still requires people to be literate. Information online is still published using words, is it not? With the exception of videos (which often still includes subtitles or information), the interactive world requires people to be more literate than ever. This is one reason why schools use online resources so much now in order to prepare students to be able to use the interactive world while reading and learning. Moreover, reading stimulates the mind, creates ideas, and helps the imagination to thrive, as well as teaching people in a variety of ways. Those who are illiterate in the 21st century have little or no chance of success, however even those who don’t make an effort to read but are still literate have little chance of doing particularly well, reading is a major part of 21st century life. Language structures our world and so is clearly extremely important for children to learn and develop through reading.

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Social media and the online world are slowly replacing the physical world of reading – as this blog is testament to. This makes good literacy skills more important than ever in an interactive world. Every waking moment of our lives involves language and literacy. We use the internet to search and learn, we need language and good literacy skills in order to use it successfully.

Although all these things are of extremely high importance, one thing is often overlooked in the 21st century… reading provides children and adults with recreation and escapism from the constantly bustling and busy modern world. Reading teaches us about the world through non-fiction books.

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Fictional reading however provides imagination and escapism that is essential for dealing with stress, and creates enjoyment and entertainment. Reading isn’t only essential for learning and being literate, it is also essential for its positive effect on the brain by stimulating imagination, and its effect as a relaxing, recreational form of entertainment.

Relevant links:

#Mondayblogs NTU’s ‘Students in Classrooms’ Mentoring Scheme

 

In this first of four guest blogs, Nottingham Trent University student James Wood shares his experience of mentoring in schools and why he believes this can help the development of literacy skills.

Nottingham is a city which has been struggling with literacy levels and attainment over the last few years, with many children in Nottingham living in relative poverty. According to Nottinghamshire County Council in 2014, 17.1% of children in Nottinghamshire were living in poverty. This means 27,920 children aged 0-19. Work needs to be done to help improve education and access to learning and literacy for pupils, and mentoring is a great way to do this.

Mentoring can be great for encouraging development in pupils through one-to-one sessions. By taking the time to privately mentor pupils, a great deal can be discovered about the way that individuals learn, and sessions can be tailored to help improve their skills, attainment and educational experience in a way that suits them best.

In the last few years Nottingham Trent University has set up a scheme in order to encourage pupil’s development in literacy, academic subjects and skills based development through mentoring in local schools. The mentoring scheme also aims to create an awareness of the benefits of higher education and encourage pupils to pursue university, apprenticeships, sixth form or college. I have been lucky enough to be a member of this scheme for the last two years.

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Mentoring can help pupils to find out the best way for them to read, revise, work and learn. 

The scheme involves each mentor tutoring four pupils in local Nottingham schools for one hour a week each in a variety of academic and personal skills subjects. I have sessions in subjects such as CV building, dealing with stress, organisation, revision skills, speech skills, aspirations, higher education and GCSE topics.  Planning is required for each session to ensure it runs smoothly and meets the specific needs of individuals.

Through this scheme I have realised the importance of mentoring in education to schools and children’s development. And for good reason! Mentors from higher education backgrounds bring recent experiences of school life that are relatable to the mentee, allowing them to connect with their mentor better than with many teachers. University students understand the hardship of the current education system, as well as the life of a pupil, which is appreciated, as it reassures these young people that university students can relate to their situation.

However, some pupils may feel threatened by someone from university, they may see successful students doing a degree as a nerd or ‘one of those’. These pupils feel like they are very different to their university mentors and so may feel alienated. However, schemes such as Nottingham Trent’s ‘Students in Classrooms’ can help to promote the relationship and similarities between mentors from university backgrounds and mentees. I have mentored students with behaviour problems, something I have never had, but the pupils can relate to me in others ways, as I understand the pressures and stresses of school life. Through conversations with me they have hopefully come to realise how interesting and exciting university life is, often asking questions about what it is like to study a degree, the costs, what it is like to live on my own or pay rent, as well as how I got to university.

In schools there isn’t much time prioritised for developing non-academic skills. Instead, teachers tend to focus more on writing, reading, maths and scientific skills. Although teachers do improve pupil’s literacy skills, in certain cases teachers find it hard to encourage reading. Mentors, who are not constrained by performance statistics and the everyday pressures expected of a teacher, are able to offer support to pupils that goes beyond the curriculum.

Mentors can use their own experiences to suggest reading that pupils may enjoy, such as the Dawn of the Unread comic book series which isn’t on the curriculum, but which offers snippets into the lives of local literary figures, with the aim of encouraging pupils to go out and discover more about these writers for themselves.For example, I had one student who likes to write his own poetry and wants to write books, so I recommended he read some romanticist and modernist poetry as well as get some experience in what good literature looks like by reading Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Mentors can also pass on and demonstrate the skills they have developed and can use in everyday and working life, which will encourage pupils that reading a wide variety of books, is massively beneficial.

After two years of working in schools I firmly believe that mentoring can massively improve individual student’s attainment levels and literacy skills, as well as encourage reading. Therefore, I feel it is important and should be co-operated more into the education system, not just in Nottingham, but in other areas in which attainment and literacy levels are low, or access to satisfactory education is limited.

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FURTHER READING