March 2016

Smarty-Pants Visual Literacy

Wednesday, Mar 30, 2016

What do Wisconsin 7th graders, visual literacy, 1930’s era Mexican immigrants, a teenage Chinese girl, and the Holocaust all have in common?  They were all elements of an engaging project at Whitewater Middle School that I did in partnership with the education department of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.


My smarty-pants (code for holding a Ph.D. in education) wife has taught me a bit about “literacy”. I know just enough to sound smarty-pants as I talk education-ese and throw around words like “pedagogy” and terms like “home literacies”. What I’ve come to understand is that while many people apply the term “literacy” to a very specific set of reading and writing skills, the term can be applied in a much more expansive way.


What excited me in Wisconsin was watching 7th graders and pre-service teachers (college students studying to be teachers) as they approached a series of books that represent some of the diverse populations that make up the United States. These middle school and college students mapped out the stories and the characters, they made games, and they researched art from the cultures represented in the books, among other things.  


Then I got to play with them! Now I will drop the term “visual literacy” in your lap.  Plop.  Here’s the deal: kids these days are surrounded by images, and they process much of the world around them through pictures. By visually digging into the cultures represented in the books, the students could more deeply picture the content in the books.  By being forced to represent ideas from the stories in images, students needed to consider ways to communicate moods and actions and themes.  The result: paintings that are the ideas of those seventh graders, researched by them (they even acted out scenes and postures), and largely painted by them (I tie them all together).


(Side note: it’s important to me in these projects to let the students both SEE and PARTICIPATE in the PROCESS...that’s another important topic.)


So the next time you’re at a party and the topic of education comes up, make sure to ask something like, “How does your pedagogical approach incorporate visual literacy?” Plop. Smarty-pants.