The Why- Revisiting a Text
In preparation for a grad class focused on using technology to support writing & literacy across the content areas I am facilitating, I recently reread Mary Ehrenworth’s Looking to Write: Children Writing Through the Visual Arts. While one of the core texts for the course is Troy Hick’s Crafting Digital Writing (which is fantastic as well!!), the teachers taking the course had requested some work around visual texts to engage in rhetoric and writing.
The How- It’s Always About the Journey
Roughly 12 years ago, when working as an Instructional/Literacy Staff Developer, I was lucky enough to spend a week at Columbia’s Teachers College for a Reading and Writing Project Winter Institute with Lucy Calkins and her faculty. Dr. Ehrenworth was one of my groups facilitators for the week. To say that experience was career changing is an understatement. As an English Teacher and Instructional/Literacy Staff Developer, I was always looking for ways to use visual text to engage students in historical time periods, in cultures, in characters and/or themes in literature. What I was missing, though, was the visual rhetoric and literacy piece. Questions I was constantly wrestling with were:
- How can I help students engage in these texts in ways beyond just a ‘reaction’?
- How can I create more critical thinking and depth without losing the ‘personal connection’ piece?
- Can I help students analyze these pieces to understand how the composer created that visual piece to elicit that reaction?
- Will these deeper transactions with visual texts lead to greater understanding of people, culture, literature, art…themselves?
This particular text helped light a fire and passion to explore these questions with my students. The writing and examples helped lay out connections between poetry and culture, art and desire, and gave practical ways in which students could synthesize all of this in meaningful ways as a springboard to writing. It also lead me to talk with numerous Art teacher colleagues, friends, and family about Artful Thinking, to dive into other texts of similar topics (Hick’s book being one), to go deeper into the concept of visual (and more recently physical/spatial) text as a form of argument and the rhetorical devices behind it, and, with the patience and help of my students and colleagues, purposefully experiment with this form of transacting and this form of literacy to help my students engage and make meaning through a variety of mediums.
While I’m not sure I’ve figured every one of the above questions to a definitive, yes this works every time, I do know that each time we’ve engaged in this type of transaction we’ve taken different meanings and different ideas from those experiences, and in their own ways to to certain extents they have been meaningful and powerful.
In looking for some practical supports for specific note-making strategies, a colleague from the Penn Literacy Network had shared a group of Document Analysis Resources from the National Archives site: https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/worksheets. These became a practical way to help students analyze and transact with visual texts in ways that created a depth of meaning, understanding and connection that supported not only their writing, but their discussions as well.
The What- Translating Into the Classroom
A few samples of how Ehrenworth’s book, the collaboration with colleagues, and the National Archives resources have overlapped and ‘fed’ each other are below:
- Visual Literacy: Photographs as Human Connection (ELA/SS)
- Visual Literacy: Photographs as Scientific Exploration (Science)
- Visual Literacy: Photographs as Mathematical Observation (Math)
- Visual Literacy: Sculptures as Cultural Capital (ELA/SS)
While none of these are ‘exactly’ how some of the texts laid out the original idea, and while some of these are just enhancements of lessons that pre-existed (ie- the Holocaust intro to Night was in place prior to finding the National Archives documents…we just combined the two), and many of these ideas came from collaboration with colleagues (the Science example & adding the poetry extension to the Math example), the ideas and examples in Ehrenworth’s book lit a spark that had given me the confidence to tackle visual texts with my students, and the flexibility to adjust these ideas to fit my particular content area, grade level, and student population.
For that I’ll forever be grateful!