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SPaRK – Mechanica: A Beginner’s Field Guide

By Kelly Hodkinson – Head Teacher English at Erskine Park High School.

SPaRK overview

A using quality literature Shared Practice and Resource Kit (SPaRK) for English Stage 4, Years 7-8.

Resource: ‘Mechanica: A Beginner’s Field Guide’ by Lance Balchin, The Five Mile Press, Vic, 2016.

Learning and teaching activities in this SPaRK are centred on outcomes and content from the NSW English K-10 Syllabus and the English Textual Concepts resource.

What is it about?

‘Mechanica’ is a beautiful picture book filled with highly detailed images of mechanical birds, bugs, and reptiles. The picture book is set in a future world where these creatures have supposedly become extinct due to damage to the environment caused by humans. The introduction explains the situation and introduces readers to leading experts and influences in the creation of Mechanica. The remainder of the book is devoted to double page spreads on each of the creatures. Each entry comprises a detailed image and an overview of the creature’s make, features and function. Readers are left to build a narrative around the snippets of information linked to the lives of the creators, primarily focussed on the young explorer, Liberty Crisp. The text concludes with her words on her first sighting of a live butterfly in the wild. Her comment serves as a warning to readers of how the beauty that surrounds them could be lost to future generations.

This text is appropriate for teaching students about Genre, Connotation, Imagery and Symbol, and Point of View. It could easily be used to teach other concepts including, Authority, Character, Code and Convention, Intertextuality, Perspective, Narrative, Representation, Style and Theme. It also addresses cross curricular priorities and capabilities, including: sustainability, critical and creative thinking, ethical understanding, literacy, and information and communication technology capability.

Why is this important? Why does it matter?

This text presents readers with the merging of three distinct Genres which are likely to be new to Stage 4 students. The genres include Scientific field guide, Dystopian fiction, and Steampunk. Students can learn about the different conventions of these genres and the way they influence both the creation of and responses to the text. Through discussion links can be made to the ways genres can be combined for specific purposes, audiences, and contexts. Connotation, Imagery and Symbol should be explored through both the visual imagery and language use in the text. The images are striking in their beauty and familiarity evoked by the composer’s use of everyday machinery photoshopped to resemble known living creatures. The meaning associated with the images is much more subtly woven into the story through the language and the narrator’s point of view. Analysing the textual features provides an opportunity to show students how Point of View and Connotation, Imagery and Symbol are deliberately constructed by composers and illustrate the values of a text which may be persuasive in nature. The pleasure in reading and viewing this book should provide opportunities for students to find equal pleasure in their own creative processes.

How do I use the text to teach the textual concepts of Genre, Theme, and Authority?

Genre focus activities

After students have read the book for the first time, discuss the notion of genre with them. Pose questions such as: How would they define this book? Are there any benefits to being able to define a book by its genre? Do they believe that an understanding of conventions influences the way a book is created and/or received? Can genres be combined to create new texts?

Provide each student with one of three genres to research: steampunk, dystopian fiction, or scientific field guide. Students need to make a checklist of ten or more conventions for their given genre. Students then reread the book and use their checklist to determine which of the conventions they can identify within the book. Bring together the students who worked on each genre and have them compare their findings and consolidate their information as a group. Members from each group present their genre and findings to the class, explaining both the way the genre has helped shape the creation of the book and how the knowledge of the genre and conventions has impacted the readers during their second reading. As a class, debate which genre they believe to be the most recognisable and which is most influential over both the composer and the responder. Create a class list of points and supporting evidence from the novel. Link these ideas to the students’ perception of the purpose, audience, and context of the text. Ask students to create their own list of conventions, examples and the effects these had over their personal reading of the text. Students then write a reflective piece exploring the impact each of the genres had over both the composer in creating the text, and their own reading of the text (understanding, engaging critically and connecting).

EN4-4B

  • explore and analyse the ways purpose, audience and context affect a composer’s choices of content, language forms and features and structures of texts to creatively shape meaning

EN4-6C

  • recognise, explain and analyse the ways literary texts draw on readers’ knowledge of other texts and enable new understanding and appreciation of aesthetic qualities (ACELT1629)
  • categorise texts by content, composer and genre considering language forms, features and structures of texts.

Exploring language and imagery

Ask students to write a description of the world in 2250 as depicted in the book. Ask students to consider how they came to their conclusions. Discuss the impact of word connotations and associations of ideas in texts based on the language choices and imagery created for readers. Focus on the opening ‘A Brief History’ and ask students to highlight all the words related to science and the environment, for example, ‘wildlife species’, ‘ozone’ and ‘propagation’. What ideas do these conjure? What aspects can be related to our world and how is the new world different? Secondly, ask students to highlight all the words linked to our current society/world, such as ‘East and West’, ‘Industrial Revolution’, and ‘Corporation’. Discuss with students the influence of our own context and knowledge of the world and how this links to an involvement in the text. Next, ask the students to highlight the language that is directly linked to the future world, such as ‘Mechanica’ and ‘Broken Arrow’. What purpose do these words fulfil? What word associations and connotations do students see? Finally, ask students to highlight all the subjective language and identify what these words and statements show of the narrator’s values, such as ‘turned a blind eye’ and ‘but the use of such fossil fuels came at a great price’. Who do they think the narrator is? How are they involved in the story? What does their language indicate about their beliefs and values? How does the narrator’s point of view shape the meaning in the text? Students are to write an evaluation of the language used in the introduction of the text, considering how the author has created a world and conveyed an environmental message, and the impact of these language choices on the student, personally.

Language analysis from Mechanica

Students could further their investigation of the language choices with an analysis of the ‘Mechanica’ descriptions and the Addendum (understanding, engaging personally and engaging critically).

EN4-1A

  • explore and appreciate the aesthetic qualities in their own and other texts and the power of language to communicate information, ideas, feelings and viewpoints
  • recognise when information is presented objectively and subjectively by examining the language of opinion, including modality, bias, personal pronouns and other semantic cues

EN4-5C

  • critically analyse the ways experience, knowledge, values and perspectives can be represented through characters, situations and concerns in texts and how these affect responses to texts

EN4-7D

  • explain and justify personal empathy, sympathy and antipathy towards characters, situations and concerns depicted in texts
  • analyse and understand the ways techniques of representation in multimodal texts are used to present alternative views of the world, people, places and events.

Experimenting activities

Tell students that they are to create their own ‘Mechanica’ field guide page using the picture book as a model. To prepare for the task students need to do some research and analysis. Firstly, students need to analyse a page of ‘Mechanica’ focussing on the different visual and language features. Link this activity back to the genre conventions to consolidate their learning of new genres. See example scaffold.

Next, students investigate how Lance Balchin created the ‘Mechanica’ images and what inspired the story. The interview, On Mechanica and the magic of machines with Lance Balchin and the Mechanica website are good resources to share with students. Encourage students to discuss their findings and use them to design a class planning template to help students with their own creation. Lance Balchin advises artists to, ‘… work out what you want to say with your art’. Discuss further the purpose of this book and have students decide whether they want to copy this or try to subvert the idea in their own work. Discuss the implications of their decision and plans relating to how they will create their own.

The website has a section which allows students to create their own ‘Mechanica’ through Photoshop, using Balchin’s images and/or their own. Discuss with students the ways this highlights the collaborative nature of art today and the ways that texts are linked to audiences in different mediums. Possibly look at his newest release, ‘Aquatica’ and brainstorm what other books might evolve in this series. Then have students complete their own plan for a page for ‘Mechanica’ or another version of this text. Let students enjoy the process of creating a new text and sharing it with their peers (understanding, engaging personally, experimenting, connecting and reflecting).

Pages from Mechanica showing a mechanical dragonfly

Page analysis

Mechanica name:

Common name:

Page numbers:

Visual analysis

Position of image:

Use of colour on Mechanica:

Image associations:

Font choices:

Layout:

Use of colour across spread:

Language analysis

Point of view:

Subjective/objective:

Connotation/associations:

Genre analysis

Elements of steampunk:

Elements of scientific field guide:

Elements of dystopian fiction:

EN4-1A

  • use increasingly sophisticated verbal, aural, visual and/or written techniques, eg imagery, figures of speech, selective choice of vocabulary, rhythm, sound effects, colour and design, to compose imaginative texts for pleasure

EN4-2A

  • use a widening range of processes of composing and publishing sustained texts, including planning, drafting, rehearsing and editing

EN4-4B

  • create literary texts that draw upon text structures and language features of other texts for particular purposes and effects (ACELT1632)
  • combine visual and digital elements to create layers of meaning for serious, playful and humorous purposes

EN4-5C

  • use imaginative texts as models to replicate or subvert textual conventions to create new texts
  • compose texts using alternative, creative and imaginative ways of expressing ideas, recognising, valuing and celebrating originality and inventiveness

EN4-6C

  • create literary texts that adapt stylistic features encountered in other texts, for example, narrative viewpoint, structure of stanzas, contrast and juxtaposition (ACELT1625).

Related texts

A Brief History

Making the illustrations

About the Author Lance Balchin

Aquatica: A Beginner’s Field Guide, Lance Balchin, Five Mile Press, 2017

Resources

Make your own Mechanica (registration required)

On Mechanica and the magic of machines with Lance Balchin

Mechanica website



How to cite this article - Hodkinson, K. 2017, 'SPaRK – Mechanica: A Beginner’s Field Guide by Lance Balchin', Scan 36(3).

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