In my view, transmedia will soon be a powerful presence in the high school English classroom, and deservedly so. These modern retellings of classic texts are fun and imaginative, and students struggling to connect with, say, Victor Frankenstein on the page of Mary Shelley’s novel might better connect with modern-day medical student Victoria Frankenstein in her vlogs.
That brings me to the first application of transmedia stories: they could serve as partner texts in a text set.
A text set is a carefully curated selection of multiple texts that relate to each other in various ways, e.g. thematically, generically, etc, always centered around one key or core disciplinary text. It might be composed of a novel, a short story, a YouTube video, and a critical essay, for instance.
In Adolescent Literacy in the Era of the Common Core (a fantastic resource, by the by), Cynthia Shanahan proposes that the strategy of asking students to read multiple texts is a beneficial one in many ways. Text sets meet the demands of the Common Core for exposure to many kinds of texts; they encourage students to make intertextual connections between texts; they also foster creative thinking, in that students are less likely to understand one interpretation as the “correct” one.
But perhaps the most important use of a text set in my mind is to increase reading comprehension of complex disciplinary texts, for example, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, by pairing them with more accessible texts. These supplementary texts might be more accessible because they rely on a lower lexile level or a more engaging mode like video. I can personally vouch for the efficacy of this approach, having incorporated some key frames from No Fear Shakespeare Graphic Novels: Macbeth in a Macbeth unit with my sophomores this spring.
Here’s where transmedia texts come in. If my students are struggling to get through Frankenstein, a very difficult text that is narrated in epistolary form through multiple frames(!), I might decide to add a transmedia text into the unit to create a text set. In this case I could use PBS Digital Studios’ gender-bent transmedia adaptation, Frankenstein, M.D. Frankenstein, M.D. reimagines Shelley’s classic novel for the modern era, complete with female protagonist/med student Victoria Frankenstein.
Not only does the serial vlog format — like a biweekly online TV show — make the plot easier to understand, it also prompts viewers to perhaps ask new questions of the original text, for example, about the function of female characters who so often end up dead.
As a teacher, I wouldn’t necessarily need to assign the entire transmedia series. I could select certain episodes of key scenes to view in class. I would be willing to bet that plenty of students would be hooked enough to finish it on their own.
Application #2: genre model for multimodal composition
And not only would pairing transmedia adaptations of classic works of literature be an effective strategy for fostering reading comprehension and engagement, it would also be, I believe, an amazing framework for a digital composition assignment. Students could read a text like The Odyssey and be asked to individually or collaboratively create a modern transmedia adaptation of the text. This idea isn’t so different from the final senior project at my school, Book to Film, in which students make a tw0-minute movie trailer based on a book.
My friend Anne over at Habits of ELA actually composed a transmedia blog and vlog based on the novel Luna for a Young Adult Lit course. If you’re curious what such a composition could look like, check out her entire blog here. It’s a great model for potential student work.
Asking students to compose transmedia texts based on a core text requires them to build several skills, depending on what forms of media they decide to incorporate. They’ll likely have to perform genre analysis on a handful of digital genres that will probably be new to them using the principles of rhetoric. Then they’ll attempt to incorporate those digital genres in their own writing, experimenting with genre conventions (digital literacy is so darn important). They’ll also need to think critically about issues of adaptation, particularly for older canonical texts.The list goes on.
What other applications can you envision for transmedia texts in the English classroom?
In my next post, I’ll round out this series by sharing with you a long list of some of my favorite transmedia series based on classic literature.