Interview with Gregory Crocetti, Scale Free Network

The Educational Publishing Awards are committed to rewarding excellence and innovation in the publishing industry at primary, secondary and tertiary levels. We have put together a series of interviews with the publishers, editors and authors involved in the creation and development of educational resources.

We caught up with Gregory Crocetti from Scale Free Network to talk about The Invisible War: A Tale on Two Scales, a shortlisted entry for the 2017 EPAA Reference Resource award.

For those who don’t know, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and the shortlisted entry?
I’m an independent publisher. In 2007, I began a long-term collaboration with visual artist Briony Barr in the art-science collective, Scale Free Network. We now spend the bulk of our time creating science adventure stories, set on the microscopic scale.

The Invisible War is our first graphic novel, created through a highly collaborative methodology by a team of Australian artists, scientists, writers, educators and historians. The story is set in 1916, partly around the muddy trenches of WWI, and partly in the mucus-lined trenches of a nurse’s large intestine. Our main human character accidentally swallows some dysentery-causing Shigella bacteria while treating an infected patient. The story then follows their epic journey as they battle their way through her digestive system and encounter other microbes living in her gut. The unlikely micro-heroes of the story are the “bacteriophage”, alien-looking bacteria-eating viruses who battle the dysentery bacteria to save Annie’s life.

What was your motivation for developing this resource?
Microbes such as bacteria, viruses and fungi make up 99% of life on Earth. And while a few of these invisible creatures can cause diseases, the overwhelming majority of microbes are beneficial, and in fact essential to the continued existence of the visible 1% of life, including us humans. I find it tragic that instead of learning about the amazing things that microbes do in our world, children are instead taught about microbes as agents of disease. Given the tragedy of this situation, I felt something had to be done. And so I made it my mission to try to create educational resources that flipped the script to teach children (and hopefully also adults) about many of the marvellous things microbes do in the world around us.

Why do you think this text will be appealing for students to engage with in their students?
Our modern screen-based world is driving more and more children and young adults to seek non-traditional modes of learning. With the simultaneous high demand for video content, immediate satisfaction and a growing reluctance to read the printed word, there is less and less space for conventional textbooks. Instead, this has set the stage for hybrid modes of educational resources in the modern classroom – and I believe that graphic novels nicely combine the necessary written content with the appeal of visual storytelling.

What challenges do you think teachers face and how can this resource solve these challenges?
From the outset, we were very strategic about our target audience for The Invisible War. We got some great advice from Ingrid Purnell at the History Teachers Association of Victoria that our WWI focus would place our content around the year 9 curriculum. Adding to that, we knew our story would have lots of great links in our book to the year 9/10 (plus year 7/8) Science curriculum, along with natural links to the exploration of literature styles and context in the English curriculum at these levels. Thus, it was our hope that in the context of lean school budgets, The Invisible War would be able to function as a genuine interdisciplinary resource across Science, History and English/Literature classrooms.

With year 7–10 students notoriously the most difficult to manage in a classroom context across both primary and high school settings, we loved the challenge of designing The Invisible War to target this audience. In this context, the key is to engage as many students, as often as possible. I’m delighted to say that from my experience sitting with several classrooms across several schools (at different levels) reading The Invisible War, I can say that without exception, every student read the story from start to finish.

Why did you decide to submit The Invisible War to the EPAAs?
I believe in the power of story to deliver complex ideas. That’s why I continue to develop science adventure stories in a picture book format to teach primary school students about the varied symbiotic partnerships between microbes and larger forms of life. But I’m now also a huge believer in the educational potential of graphic novels. I grew up reading comics like Asterix and Tintin – always entertained and sometimes unsuspectingly educated.

However, my recent experience of creating within the graphic novel format and seeing the growing demand for visual learning in modern classrooms has convinced me of the importance of graphic novels in a teaching context.
Being a tiny independent publisher brings particular advantages and disadvantages. Our small size allows us to maintain creative control and quickly follow new trends and opportunities. But we also have to work really hard to cut through the noise – to compete against enormous marketing budgets and reputations of massive publishers, especially in the educational scene. Winning an EPAA would really help validate our choices to remain independent as well as our interdisciplinary approach to learning.

Good luck and all the best to Scale Free Network!

The Educational Publishing Awards are held at The Pavilion, Arts Centre Melbourne on Wednesday, 20 September 2017.

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