“Learning is a journey; art is a map”
~ Tom Lee ~
One frustration I often have after attending workshops or conferences during the school year is that when I get back to school, I’m immediately caught up in day-to-day demands. This leaves little time to process and implement what I’ve learned. Presenters always advise to “pick one strategy or activity” to weave into your practice, but this too can be a challenge. So I’ve loved having some uninterrupted time to process my learning from the four days I spent at the Yale Center for British Art, which I wrote briefly about here.
I’ve also been reading Vicki Vinton’s wise and thought-provoking new book, Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading: Shifting to a Problem-Based Approach (Heinemann, 2017). The reverberations between Vicki’s book and my learning from YCBA are striking. Having met Vicki, attended many of her sessions at conferences and reading her book, written with Dorothy Barnhouse, What Readers Really Do, this really didn’t surprise me.
As I reread my notes, some overarching ideas stood out:
- skill development
I created a document with five columns, sorting my notes according to these ideas. I quickly realized that I was “tackling complexity” by “putting the pieces together, rather than taking them apart, [which allowed me] to see connections, relationships and patterns of interactions.” (p. 4) It was deeply satisfying to see these relationships emerge.
Vicki’s underlying argument is that, in our rush to scaffold our students for success, we have deprived our students of opportunities to engage in critical thinking. They need many opportunities to engage in “productive struggle…the process of thinking, making sense and persevering in the face of not knowing exactly how to proceed” (p.13).
Visual literacy teaches children that, as Linda Friedlaender, Senior Curator of Education at YCBA, pointed out “images have an underlying narrative.” They automatically provide an accessible text that allow students to engage in productive struggle. Images allow students to think “for themselves, with a minimum of scaffolding.” (Vinton, p. 27). Reading images develops the same skills readers need when they read any text, including vocabulary, identifying key details, precise word choice, observation, and formulating and defending a thesis. (What Vicki and Dorothy refer to as “first-draft” thinking). Importantly, visual literacy makes abstract comprehension skills more concrete.
By incorporating visual literacy into our regular literacy routines, we create opportunities for students “to wonder, generate questions, and form hypotheses, then to test out those hypotheses, using reasoning and logic, to arrive at a final judgment or claim” (Vinton, p. 37).
Give it a try. What do you see in this painting? Images such as “The Young Anglers,” by Edmund Bristow, offer students a chance to orient themselves to the narrative of the image, just as readers have to orient themselves when reading written text.
After observing and gathering information, students share their thoughts. Just as with a piece of writing, students’ ideas have to be grounded in the details of the painting. Again, the process of reading a painting parallels and supports what we do when we read a book. If someone says they think the dog above belongs to the two boys, they have to share the exact detail from the painting that makes them think that. This is a critical step. As Vicki states, “the more opportunities students have to talk about their thinking, the more likely they are to transfer that thinking from one text to the next” (p. 77). This is true for images as well as written texts, and will also transfer from images to written texts.
Once students have developed an understanding of the narrative of the painting, the response options are limitless. Students can sketch or draw their response, write about their thinking, or (ideally), both. And, just as writing deepens our understanding of a text we’ve read, sketching deepens our understanding of visual images by drawing us ever deeper into the fine details.
The possibilities incorporating visual literacy into our classrooms are endless, and I’m excited to get back to school and working with students to build their thinking skills. In the meantime, I’m going to finish reading Vicki’s book and continue gathering images that will “give [students] a chance to build up the muscle to deal with the problems texts like this pose” (p. 79).
Thank you to the incredible educators and speakers at YCBA, including Jaime Ursic, Patti Darragh, Tom Lee, James Shivers, and Darcy Hicks, for your insights on incorporating visual literacy in the classroom.