Pic and mix

19th September 1997 at 01:00
PICTURE POWER. By Jenny Grahame and Michael Simons. English and Media Centre Book Pounds 17.50. CD-Rom Pounds 24.95. Available from NATE, 50 BroadfieldRoad, Sheffield S8 0XJ

At a time when the financing of most English departments is beggarly, great care must be taken in deciding how to spend money. Ranks of books claiming to be relevant and interesting stretch to the horizon like armies in the Napoleonic Wars. Most are expensive and designed as class books - so you need to buy lots of them. Few are worth it. How refreshing, then, to find a publication full of ideas that excite the imagination and, hooray, that will not break the bank.

Picture Power originally appeared as a teacher's book filled with exercises related to visual images. Working in small groups, students were asked to discuss the images and make their own presentations using the photographs as a source.

Assignments ranged from investigating a single picture to reveal its story potential, through the manipulation of images to create biased reports, to soaps, narratives and a newspaper front page. The class would be active, stimulated and working on relevant material. On this basis alone the book should be recommended.

Now the English and Media Centre has released a CD-Rom based on five assignments in the book. It adds much to the original idea. It has the same photographic material, but students can work on a screen rather than with scissors and paste.

Taking advantage of multimedia technology, the program allows the student to add music, scripted captions and recorded commentary. Photographs can be cropped and used in any order.

The programme is easy to use and great fun. Students are asked to read media texts and produce them in collaborative, open-ended activities. There is no single outcome to any of the exercises, so students are not inhibited by having to find the "right" answer. Rather they are invited to describe and justify their decisions to one another.

The beauty of this sort of material is that it helps develop students' critical literacy while allowing them to work at their own levels. Guide notes in a "ReadMe" file are clear about the teacher's role in ensuring all students can make their own meanings at whatever level is appropriate.

The media content should appeal to most English or media studies departments, and the package is a bargain.

Sometimes a publication strikes just the right spot and it is possible to see several applications immediately. Picture Power is an example of this. Highly recommended.

Chris Breese is head of English and expressive arts at Marriotts School, Stevenage

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