Visual Literacy: My Reflections

Recently, I have been studying the topic of visual literacy, and the readings and assignments that I have completed have impacted my teaching in real and tangible ways. Over the last few weeks, I have made some drastic improvements in the classroom, most especially by completely overhauling the mini-unit that I teach to my 6th graders about Native Americans.

In recent weeks, I have improved a number of my PowerPoint presentations by adding much better images and reducing the amount of text on each slide, I have included some new video and pictorial resources on my website for my students to access, and I have had some meaningful discussions with colleagues about what we are currently doing to address media and visual literacy in our school and what still needs to be done.

Furthermore, I have applied what I have been learning outside of the classroom, as well. I am using what I learned about F-tracking to overhaul the charity website that I manage. Also, I recently overhauled an old PowerPoint presentation which outlines that work that the previously mentioned charity does, and I presented it this weekend at a benefit that I was hosting. The old PowerPoint was text-heavy, so when updating it, I made the focus of each slide the image instead of the text. The presentation brought a few guests to tears, and I really think using powerful images had a lot to do with that.

I am also convinced that I am going to be learning more and more about visual literacy in the weeks to come. Soon, some of my colleagues and I will have a meeting about how visual and media literacy are being addressed across the curriculum, and just today, a colleague shared with me a blog entry called Digital Storytelling: Engage Students in Collaborative Creative Writing in Class and Online, which has got me thinking about how I could use a variety of online tools during the fiction unit that I teach later in the school year.

Recently, I also read Becoming Screen Literate by Kevin Kelly, which I found quite thought-provoking. Kelly talks about how at first, humans’ dominant media was oral storytelling. Thanks to Gutenberg and the printing press, print eventually replaced oral storytelling as the dominant media. Today, we are becoming “people of the screen”.  Kelly talks about how there are screens everywhere these days, and being a resident of Tokyo, I must agree with him. There are even screens on vending machines here.

He goes on to talk about how today’s digital media is being created like a writer writes. He says that a movie scene is “like a writer’s paragraph, constantly being revised.” As an English teacher, I found this comparison of moviemaking to writing very interesting.

I also recently read Questioning Video, Film, Advertising, and Propaganda: Deconstructing Media Messages. This site offers a number of good questions that teacher can use when asking students to critically examine videos. It also talks about how teachers should teach students to understand a list of “film devices” just as they teach students to recognize “literacy devices” in an English class. Again, being an English teacher, I found this idea to be very thought-provoking.

I also must admit that I really loved that this site mentioned Saskatchewan Education’s Media Studies 20 course. First, being a native of Saskatchewan myself, a province in Canada that many people have never heard of, it was very exciting to see my province mentioned on a website! Also, I was excited to read this because during my practicum, I was actually given the opportunity to teach this course for a couple of months. I thoroughly enjoyed teaching the course and believe that the students found what the course covered to be very relevant to their lives.

For my final project in course 3, I chose to write a lesson plan based on visual literacy. As I have mentioned in my last few blog posts Reading Pictures – Let’s Take a Look at Visual Literacy and Killing my Students Softly…with PowerPoint, I have had some problems getting my students to really understand what a Native American is. As I mentioned previously, one of my students recently asked me if all the Native Americans were now gone. This was a wake-up call. I suddenly realized that I had been teaching my students all about Native Americans prior to colonization and around the time of colonization, but I failed to talk about Native Americans in the present day. As such, I knew it was high time I did a lesson on Native Americans today.

The mini-unit in which this lesson fits provides a brief introduction to the Native Americans peoples of North America. It is studied in grade 6 English in preparation for reading the novel Walk Two Moons. Students begin the unit by making a KWL chart on the topic “Native Americans”. Then, they view a PowerPoint presentation which describes the places that the main character will visit over the course of the novel, a number of which are very important locations to Native Americans. Next, they read some picture books – Crazy Horse’s Vision, Between Earth and Sky, and Brother Eagle, Sister Sky. While reading the latter, they examine the images present in the story and discuss why some Native American groups do not think this is a good book for children. Then, they read If You Lived with the Iroquois.

Now it is time for the new lesson. First, students will now watch a short video called Native Americans from National Geographic Kids. This gives a very basic overview of the history of Native Americans from ancient times until today. They will then answer some questions related to video which ask them to examine how the creator of the video feels towards Native American peoples. Next, students will view some picture galleries of Native American peoples. After viewing, they will choose one image that appealed to them. They will add this image to their digital portfolio blog that they created in ICT class and answer a number of questions about the image. Next, they will do an online image search for an image that in some way relates to the original one they chose. They will add the new image that they find to their blog and again answer the same questions. Then, they will share this blog post with their classmates. Finally, the students will then write comments on each other’s blogs.

I am both excited and nervous about trying out this lesson. I showed my students the video today and asked them to answer the questions for homework. Then, I gave them the assignment to view the picture galleries, find an additional image, and answer the questions. They have one week to complete the task. Some of the students seemed quite excited about the task, while others seemed very apprehensive about it. This task is quite different from the usual reading and writing that I assign, so I am very curious to see how my students fare. We have analyzed some images as a whole class a few times already this year, but I have not yet asked my students to do this on their own. I may be pleasantly surprised, and find that my students are truly capable of analyzing images, or I may find that I have to do a lot more background work with my students before assigning this type of task. I try to remind myself of the words of Louis E. Boone, “Don’t fear failure so much that you refuse to try new things.” I know that I will learn a lot when I see what kind of work my students produce.


Here is the lesson plan:

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6 Responses to Visual Literacy: My Reflections

  1. Hi Mary!
    What a coincidence. Today, our fourth graders held their Native American museum for parents and other students. It’s the culminating event of our N. American unit where small groups of 3 to 4 students research a tribe and relate its location/setting/geography and how it impacted their lives (way of life, food, relationships, culture, clothing, shelter and arts). Then tonight I come home and hit upon your reflection and unit.

    I think your plan to have students reflect on images is very powerful. So often during their research, our fourth graders would neglect to ‘analyse’ the images they found relating to their tribes. These images were so rich in clues about their way of life, but we had not given our students the training to examine these primary sources for their ‘second hand’ content. The questions you are asking your students to answer about the images are so perfect. I will definitely share them with our fourth grade team and hopefully next year we can give our student a similar mini-lesson. We need to teach students to look for answers beyond websites. Well done!

    • Avatar of Mary Fish Mary Fish says:

      Hi Josee. Thanks for you comments! I like the idea of Native American museum. That sounds like a really neat project. I am glad that you think the questions are good. I actually found them while reading The Visual Literacy White Paper – link to There are many more other good ones in the paper too, so you should check it out. I have my fingers crossed that my students will have meaningful discussions on Monday when the assignment is due. Cheers.

  2. Hi Mary. Thank you for sharing ‘The Visual Literacy White Paper’. I appreciate well a well written (clear, informative and pleasant read) document. I especially liked the section where they explain images having syntax and semantic aspects. I had never thought of images in that way. Great food for thought.

    I ‘m adding a few photos of our fourth graders’ displays. They all had to produce a poster and created the dioramas as a group. But the best was watching them explain their ‘expertise’ to our museum visitors!
    link to
    link to

  3. derel says:

    thank you for this post i love it

  4. Britt says:

    Hi Mary, you wrote to me before about places to find pictures. I recently came across link to Have you used this one? It is so simple. Also, I love the way you wrote up your lesson plans and I borrowed your format. The format from Jeff for my current Cohort 1 is too much for me. Thanks for your helpful posts. Britt

    • Avatar of Mary Fish Mary Fish says:

      Thanks so much for sharing Photopin site. It looks great, and your sharing it with me is very timely. Just this morning, I was talking to my students about finding images for their digital stories, and some of the challenges that they are facing with finding appropriate ones. I am going to share this site with them tomorrow!! I am glad that the lesson plan format is useful to you. I too was getting confused by some of the formats out there and found that this one worked the best for me. Thanks again. Mary

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