Tag Archives: literacy

Reflections on Unit 4: Looking, Seeing, and Visual Literacy

Image: Periodic Table of Visualization Methods

Periodic Table of Visualization Methods fromVisual-Literacy.org

Note: This post is an extended reflection from the EdTech Team’s Teacher Leader Certification Program. I am participating in the initial cohort.

Having graduated high school and beginning my university studies as an art major only to eventually graduate with a bachelor of fine arts in theatre, visual literacy is an area that has been something on my radar for a long time.

Once I entered the field of education, I quickly surmised teachers who understand elements of design  are at a distinct advantage. Educators create and generate an enormous amount of media for their curriculum and students. Given that all media is constructed, good design is one of the primary factors in determining the quality and success of media generated.

Importance of Visually Literacy

Quite simply, we see before we speak. We see even before we reason. We see long before we learn to read.

Visuals can be universal and a way that we communicate when our language breaks down. For that reason alone visual literacy is necessary, especially in an ever increasing global community.

Perhaps it is the immediacy and utility of sight that fools us. Initially, we tend to think that everyone sees what we see. In the most simplistic terms, this may be true but intuitively we know it is not quite accurate. It takes considerable time to fully realize everyone does not see what we individually see, that it is far more complicated than all that. Gaining visual literacy aids in this understanding.

I tend to agree with Brian Kennedy in the idea that everything is an image. Yet I also advocate that we need to expand our notion of text.

I think this is because the principle way we interact with visuals is to see, whereas the principal way we interact with text is to read but we must get to the reading action in visuals to become literate. That is where the work is to be done.

I like the idea that the single word literacy be all-encompassing, much like the New London Group’s concept of “multiliteracies.” In my mind, “multiliteracies” should de facto mean literacy.

Design Principal Teach to Students

For me, the first principle I share with students is a meta one that all media is constructed. Regardless of format, genre, whatever, all media is designed and constructed to communicate and on some level influence. I start from there. Everything else follows.

Consequently, I try to have students zero in on how they feel about something as a precursor to what they think. I have often believed that feelings are not given nearly enough attention in school as a gateway to thinking. Once students can identify how they feel in response to an image, text, music, or whatever, we can begin to ask why and how.

Deconstructing communication in a way to reveal how and why it works and makes us feel what we feel is a pretty powerful way to begin.

From there, I zero in on the mother of all design principles ‑ composition. For me, it is the one that has the most crossover with creative efforts of all kinds. How and why all the other elements and principles are combined and put together. So whether we are looking at images, text, video, or music we have a common language to begin our investigation.

I have often begun the discussion of composition after screening the video below. It is one of the better introductions that I have found that has broad reach and application.

Encouraging Students to Craft Better Questions

In an effort to reflect on my classroom practice, as well as reacting to news of the day, I am endeavoring to spend more time collecting my thoughts about my practice. This post dives deep into the last couple of weeks in my ninth grade English classes.

Since beginning the school year with a literacy focus, we started to apply a series of reading strategies, discovering they were also in play when writing too. Still, the early focus is on reading and attenuating the students to the kind of reading they need to do to be successful in my class and beyond.

Preparing for More Rigorous Discourse

Comprehending challenging texts independently is something that certainly seems to be a significant ask of new freshmen year after year. Of course there are always a handful that are more than eager to devour new, interesting, and different literature, but they are a definitive minority. A number of students have already reached the point where they want to chuck reading for school. More to the point, they have grown to rely on a heavy dose of teacher interpretations, pre-reading activities that essentially make the actual reading redundant, and all manner of plot-centric quizzes oriented to catch them if they are not reading or at least listening as the teacher reads to text to them.

While I confess to reading short texts aloud quite often, it is almost always the first of multiple passes I ask the students to take through a text. We have been introducing the concept of draft reading or revisionary reading, with each pass through the text rendering new understandings and insights.

Of all the generic reading strategies that the students were able to essentially name and list on their own, questioning becomes a central part of my approach. I try to fashion my class with a general inquiry stance about nearly everything. Consequently, I spent the last couple of weeks focused almost exclusively on creating questions with students.

Starting Simply

I began by distributing Graham Greene’s “The End of the Party” and introducing the Great Books Foundation’s Shared Inquiry method of questioning. Greene’s language is pretty accessible but requires a lot of inferring to truly understand it. Plus, there is an unexpected ending that usually leaves many students quite puzzled as to what happened. It has proven to be a good foundation for the three types of questions associated with Shared Inquiry.

The students took to the different types of question with relative ease. They intuitively understood that factual questions have only one correct answer that can be found explicitly in the text or requires minimal connections. Similarly, they recognized that interpretive questions afforded multiple potential answers and had to be gleaned from the text. Furthermore, they recognized the use of applying more reading strategies to “read between the lines” and investigate what a text means. Evaluative questions were newer to them, although not to troublesome. I stressed the idea that we were not quite ready for much evaluation, which requires a deeper knowledge to avoid rash judgments.

I asked them to pair and share the questions they had developed individually and report. What is always interesting to me are the questions that students generate independently while reading the story. Upon listing them on the board in each section and asking students to label them, there was a noticeable divide between regular sections and honors sections in the kind of questions generated. The honors section had about two thirds interpretive questions, while the regular sections tended to be closer to half and half, if not favoring factual.

We used the student questions to drive all discussions about the text and I freely incorporated quality questions from different sections where it would push deeper understanding. This has become pretty common practice in my classes, letting students dictate how we will interrogate a story. Not only does this honor what students notice when reading, but it begins to empower their capacity to ask meaningful questions on their own.

Adding Some Literary Filters

Using another short story, Stephen Crane’s “An Episode of War,” I introduced five essential elements of fiction: Plot, Character, Theme, Context, and Style. This is more about seeding later inquiry, when we will focus a little more on investigating literature as a discipline of study. At this stage, using these elements becomes about associating their questions with more specific aspects of the story and how it works. I couple the elements of fiction with the 5W1H journalistic approach for questions, because it is more familiar to students and matches so well.

Additionally, I employed a more prescriptive strategy for creating and collecting questions, modified from some of the work of the Right Question Institute. Students worked in groups of three or four to develop as many questions as they could in a limited amount of time, 8-10 minutes. Then I had them label all the questions based on the element of fiction and whether is was factual or interpretive. From there, they selected the the three most important questions with an explanation why they were selected and only the those questions were collected from each section in a Google Doc, which was used to lead discussions about the text.

Crane’s story is also generally accessible, but the setting proved most challenging without any advance information. As a result, the vast majority of factual questions generated were related to context. Still, the students were able to compile an impressive list of details that evidenced the Civil War. Once that conclusion was established, I provided some limited background on Civil War to clarify student misconceptions and background knowledge voids. Apart from the majority of factual questions being contextual, the overall number totaled more interpretive questions than anything, a positive development. Together, students were able to assemble enough answers collectively to gain a much deeper understanding of the story through discussion.

Complicating the Process with Bloom’s Taxonomy

Since the students had been progressing so well and developing a high volume of quality questions to help them not only comprehend but analyze the their readings, I decided to challenge them with a more difficult text, Toni Cade Bambara’s “Blues Ain’t No Mockin Bird.” While being set in the rural South, likely sometime during the 1950s or 60s, it is also written in dialect. This provided a much more significant hurdle in terms of the language accessibility. So the complexity of the language as well as the meaning was no in play.

Prior to discussion but after reading the story, I briefly introduced the students to Bloom’s Taxonomy. With some examples of the different types of thinking, as well as printed listing, students quickly grasped the list and the difference between higher and lower order thinking. The reverse side of the list included a handful of generic reading questions matched to the type of thinking. It also included a list of question stems, partial questions to get students started, matched to each type of thinking. Due to the abstraction of Bloom’s Taxonomy, I used the stems as a scaffold for easier application of Bloom to our questioning process.

Again, the established student groups used the timed strategy from the prior story. Only this time I asked them to use the stems to help them generate new questions. Then they quickly labeled all questions in accordance with Bloom’s Taxonomy, matched them to the appropriate elements of fiction, as well as determining whether they were factual or interpretive. Asking for this reflective question construction was not lost on the students. Multiple students were able to offer cogent reasons for why labeling the questions in this way was valuable. Said one student, “I think this helps order our thinking.”


Ultimately, I am always trying to economize my teaching, weaving a handful of strands into any one single or unit. While my primary focus was on guiding students to develop stronger questions to help them understand their reading, we covered a number of other foundational concepts as well, building off the earlier reading and writing connection work. I hope to encourage greater facility with an array of strategies and approaches that students can easily apply, as needed. A larger goal is to begin to teach them how to read like writers.

The questioning naturally afforded early seeding of literary concepts, established a major component of how texts will be discussed in class, and began to orient students to the kind of meta-cognitive awareness that I will increasing ask of them in future. There were some other benefits too, but those are significant achievements, while reading and responding to short stories. Students definitely demonstrated and believed they had much deeper understanding of the stories through multiple readings and in-depth discussions.

As we wrapped this exploration of questioning, I asked them to synthesize some features of the texts that they believed were particularly noticeable or strong. Again, the list they were able to assemble was impressive. It will also serve as the platform for the next mini-unit of study where I will turn the tables and begin to ask them to now write more and try out some of the elements and features that they have now begun to notice while reading. In short, through an extended exploration of narrative writing, I will now ask them to write more like readers.

Beginning the Year Focused on Literacy

Image: Reading and Writing Connections Title Slide

Reading and Writing Connections Title Slide in Haiku Deck

I took time to reflect on the first day of school recently, mentioning how I like to dive right into the work of the class. So, I thought I might share a little about what that work looks like in the opening weeks of my ninth grade classes.

Backstory and Acknowledgements

In the summer of 2007, I spent most of my summer in a National Writing Project Invitational Summer Institute, with the local Boston affiliate.  There are a lot of things I could say about that experience, which warrant many posts of their own.

However, I had the pleasure of viewing an interactive presentation with UMass Boston professor Janna Jackson about the connections between reading and writing. Jackson had recently finished a chapter in a forthcoming book about the research that connects reading and writing, which was fascinating to me at the time. It ran deep into a topic I had contemplated but my understanding was still in its infancy. It was a solid presentation. Most important, her methods and questions got me thinking immediately about ways that I could remix the heart of the presentation for a high school audience. The result was a variation that I have been using to begin my English classes ever since.

Remixing with My Own Spin

My approach has evolved over the years, and I like to think that I have improved in how it goes. Chief among the things that I nicked form Professor Johnson was a pedagogical approach that is essentially guided discovery. A handful of her core questions still serve as an anchor. I also use the same short story, “Fetch,” by Robb White, because it can be read quickly and easily, as well as having a twist ending that beckons a higher degree of reader consciousness.

Once I distribute the story, I ask students to read and mark the text up, whatever that means to them. Their mark-up ends up being a diagnostic tool for me as I scan the room to see what they think is meant by that term and how I will adjust my teaching as a result. Additionally, I ask them to pay attention to how they read the story, to be aware of what is going on in their minds as they read and make note of it.

After a quick couple of formative questions to make sure everyone understands the story, I take a poll of how many anticipated the ending, which seems to annually float between one-third and half most of the time. I record and store the results for a later exploration into how they know what they think they know about the story.

Then I simply ask students what stood out or leaped off the page for them in the story, recording all of their responses on the white board. Their responses really lead the way, from that point. Once I have collected a number of responses, I look for one that will provide a good transition to one of the reading strategies, I know I am going to highlight (I riff off the six in Strategies that Work). I might ask some questions about why a student chose to identify a particular item to see if the strategy will rise to the fore. Often one of the strategies will bubble to the surface. If not, it is not too difficult to reframe something a student has noticed in a way that has them identifying the kind of thinking or strategy that explains the noticed element. Easily within a class period a handful of strategies can be revealed all from what students have noticed.

Encouraging Students to Notice What They Notice

I always stress that they exercise many of the strategies without even thinking about it. Yet, I push more and explain that I want them to become more reflective and aware of how they operate, why they draw certain conclusions, why and how they notice some things and not others. This effort serves a few purposes that have much longer implications.

First, in naming the strategies that are being employed they necessarily have to be more observant and aware.

Second, I want to establish the students as the driving force for the direction we are going. What they notice leads the way. I may guide things and fill in holes, but I take my cues from them, and try to make that transparent to them.

Third, we begin to assemble a  vocabulary of how we will talk about the process of reading, which they will later discover is almost identical to the process of writing.

Fourth, in discussing strategies like, relating, inferring, questioning, and more, I am laying foundations for later inquiries that drill-down on the nuances of certain strategies individually. For example, I spend a lot of time later focused on how to develop and ask really good questions, which will be foundational for later essay writing.

Last, the experience is preparation for the kind of meta-cognitive reflection that I will routinely ask them to do, as I spend considerable time asking students to self-assess their own work and experience as an antidote to a lot of teacher driven assessment and evaluation. Ultimately, I increasingly try to put students in a position of power to make choices and think about the results from those choices. It is all an effort to help them own their own learning.

All of this is likely to take a class period, sometimes spilling into a second. It really is dependent on the students in the class. Yet it serves as only a beginning to chasing bigger game.

Building on Reading and A New Wrinkle

Once strategies and other groundwork has been established, the big game question, which comes right out of that long ago presentation by Professor Jackson, “Are reading and writing similar?” Pursuing an answer to that question takes many days, but it sets an agenda, adding to a foundation of class norms, expectations, and practices. Examining the similarities and differences between the two leads to more questions, of course, and shapes nearly all of our initial reading and writing in class. Perhaps I can post more on that in future.

Since I have an iPad and have been messing about with Haiku Deck for awhile now. This year, one of the tweaks I made in my delivery was using Haiku Deck. So here it is, for what it is worth. I was having terrible trouble with efforts to embed it.

Foundation for Class

This is the first couple of weeks of my English class and how I attempt to prime the pump for all I hope the students to yield during the course of the year.

As I begin to mix in short works of fiction and non-fiction, we return to the connection between reading and writing, which proves a theme for the early part of the semester. Students discover all kinds of connections, without me having to tell them. I just keep asking them questions with a greater goal of getting all of them to start reading like writers and writing like readers. In truth, that is probably the meta-goal of any course English I teach, regardless of content, level, whatever. It is an inexhaustible journey.