Ever since I realized that the definition of “text” could extend beyond print sources, I’ve been committed to including the use of visual texts in my classroom. It’s important for students to increase visual literacy alongside traditional reading skills; still, I feel that many language arts teachers never “get there,” or they give a project where kids make a collage about a book and call that sufficient. This summer, during my research with the National Writing Project, I chose an inquiry topic that dealt with this question: How do we teach students to read and author non-print texts? I had dabbled in answering this question during my first year of teaching, but never really spent the time to full-out teach it. After my summer research, I had some clarity on some techniques that seemed like they could work. This semester, I decided to give it a try.  I’ve rolled out a new visual literacy unit with my seniors. This is essentially a super-unit, with several mini-unit components: Image Analysis, Film Studies, Media Messages, and Online Identities. I’ve started implementing a blend of the methods I proposed in my summer research, things that have worked in single day lessons in my past experience, and new ideas that flow from thinking about how to connect all this together.

At first, my students seemed confused by the concept of “reading” images. I had to equip them with a whole new lexicon to help them talk about the components of an image. We had to go back again and again to reinforce skills of observing an image in an academic way and interpreting those observations as abstract themes. But then it started clicking. Suddenly, they were reading pages and pages of meaning in a text with no words. They were creating images catered to purposeful rhetorical choices. They were realizing that there can be so much more to viewing a film than just “watching a movie.” I’ve been pushing them, hard, to make meaningful observations. And you know what? They’re awake. They’re working. And I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that at least half of my students (allegedly the lowest English performers in the whole senior class) could be acing an entry level film studies course at any university. This is one of the most successful units I’ve ever taught. But what’s behind the success? Part of it is probably the class chemistry and rapport I’ve been able to build with my relatively small groups of students (about 20 per class). But, after reflecting, I think there are some key things that might help other teachers who want to try teaching some serious visual literacy.

 1. Read Picturing Texts by Lester Faigley, et. al. This is the best resource I ran across as far as working with visual rhetoric. There are many resources on how to use visual art in classroom activities, but this book is one of very few I’ve ever found that helps with using images as an actual text for study. Any art book by Sister Wendy Beckett also does a great job of breaking down and discussing traditional and contemporary art.

2. Make sure students have a foundation in literary analysis. Interpreting a still image or a film has much in common with this traditional language arts skill. If students can’t pick out literary elements and use them to support an inferred theme in a poem, they will struggle when asked to do the same with a non-print text. I began my unit with a little bit of traditional literary analysis so I could build a bridge between the two, pointing out how the operations are the same, even if the language is different.

3. Think-aloud with examples. This has been an education buzzword for a few years. Essentially, it means that you, the teacher, speak through your thought process as you interpret an image. Put an interesting one up on your screen and talk them straight through what you notice, why you notice it, why it’s significant, and how it adds to a final conclusion. Once students are comfortable, have them also think aloud with an image in front of the class. It allows them to really show that they know what they’re talking about, and it gives the class multiple examples that come straight from peers.

4. Teach them the difference between literal and abstract thinking. Help them understand that they need literal thinking to make quality observations of a visual text, but that those need to add up to an abstract idea in the end. Coming back to rhetorical choices and the concept that artists and photographers make intentional choices for a reason can help. Non-examples of image interpretations can also help, as long as a positive counterexample is also provided. I had a non-example that a good natured student let me use, where he had written that an image of a large machine next to a comparatively tiny person  “symbolized that the machine was very big.” Through his non-example and a successful example that I prepared, students really started to understand how thinking abstractly meant they needed to “see the invisible.”  Here’s the Powerpoint that accompanied some of this instruction: [The_Road_is_Not_a_Road]

5. Give them a vocabulary. My students have received glossaries for both image and film that help them intelligently identify the rhetorical choices they identify. (Terms like: composition, values, figures, juxtaposition, mise-en-scene, camerawork, cuts, casting, etc.)  Letstudents practice identifying these things before asking to apply them in written analysis. When they’re ready, they’ll talk the talk.

6. Spend some time picking quality image examples and film clips. Take some real time to locate images and film segments that hold meaning for you. Things that are extreme, colorful, surreal, or controversial tend to capture students’ attention, but it’s even better if you can truly connect to the examples you show. The more meaning you find in a visual text, the more your students will catch the fever. The internet is your friend–YouTube has film clips galore, and online photo galleries are filled with all kinds of gems. I tend to like Edvard Munch, Scott Mutter, Time magazine’s photo essays, and National Geographic’s “Visions of Earth.”

7. Don’t accept substandard work, whether it’s a result of laziness or true misunderstanding. When you get the papers that say big things symbolize how big they are, don’t move on. Go back to basics, talking about symbolism and how it works. Make them do it again until they get it right.

8. Teach them how to take notes on film. This is quite a different process than taking notes on literature, because of the speed required, and the amount of information being processed at once. I gave my students and example of my own notes on a film clip. We watched the clip, and then looked at the notes I had photocopied for them. I use a Cornell method, where I jot down quick observations on the left side during viewing, and then develop and organize my interpretations on the right side of my notes after viewing.

Expanding the definition of text beyond just print sources not only helps prepare students with 21st Century Literacy skills, but it’s also a whole new window of discovery for many kids. My favorite quote of the unit came from an anonymous senior boy I overheard in a group discussion who laughed and said, “I’ve watched like a million movies. But I never actually thought about any of them until today.” If I had any doubts about taking the time to teach this unit, they disappeared right then.

P.s. Ever since college, I’ve heard great reviews of Reading in the Dark: Using Film As a Tool in the English Classroom by John Golden as a teaching resource. I haven’t read it yet, though it is on my neverending wishlist for books. I have a feeling this book would be a great place to start for English teachers who want to get serious about using film as a text for serious study in the classroom.