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In Visually Literate Classrooms, Words Are Worth A Thousand Pictures

Ryan Caron King
Teacher James Shivers and his students draw during class in March 2017.

High school English class is usually a time to read books and write essays. If you draw pictures, you might get into trouble. But not in James Shivers’s English class at CREC Public Safety Academy in Enfield -- he actually asks his students to draw.

Eighteen-year-old Samantha Vasquez was initially skeptical at the thought of drawing and looking at art as an English lesson.

"At first, I was kind of like, really against this because I didn't understand it," she said.

She's a book lover, and thought all this attention on visuals would be distracting.

"But when you get to actually see what he's doing," she said, "you can kind of see he's trying to put visuals with the writing and things like that, and it opens up new ways to view different things."

Her teacher, James Shivers, uses what's called "visual literacy" as way to get his students to think critically. Being "visually literate" means being able to decode, or decipher, all the visual beauty and noise of modern life. It means being able to understand different media messages – billboards, pop-up ads, commercials, message boards, social media, news articles, and even street art.

In other words, it's about visuals as a way to convey meaning. Here's how Shivers describes one of his drawing lessons:

"So it's making a visual argument, without using words," he said. "So it's very abstract, but they're very good at it too."

Watch Shivers's class in action in WNPR's video below: 

Shivers has been a teacher for over 20 years, but when he first started teaching ninth graders six years ago, he noticed something. His students were constantly on Facebook, checking their Instagram feeds, or posting to Snapchat. These social media distractions frustrate most teachers, but it inspired Shivers.

"I realized every student had a phone in their hand," Shivers said. "And that grammar -- that multimodal grammar -- was in their hand, and I kept thinking -- how can I use this? How can I explore this?"

If done correctly, visual literacy has a lot of benefits. A Yale report found that children tend to use bigger words after describing a piece of art. It's understood that the more senses that are exposed to learning, the more knowledge students will retain.

One of the lessons involves drawing. By making their own art, the thinking goes, students get a better handle on the process, which can offer insight into what visuals are intended to mean, and what might be lying just beneath the surface.

"I remember when we first started, a lot of you said, 'I can't draw, I can't draw, I can't draw,'" Shivers told his students. "Then think about where you are now in terms of drawing. Do you feel more confident or not or..."

A student called out from the back of the room, "I still can't draw!" 

"Still can't draw," Shivers shot back. "So change hands today. Draw with your other hand."

Shivers turned off the lights and turned on a Smart Board projector. A photograph of a bronze sculpture appeared on a screen. It was a man with no face -- his left arm wasn't visible, with his right arm bent across his stomach. His head tilted slightly down.

"I'm going to ask you to draw," Shivers said. "You'll have about five or ten minutes to draw. As you're drawing, I want you to think about what mood this piece is sending out."

Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR
Jorge Serrano sketches during an assignment in Shivers's class in March 2017.

He then asked them to write down any emotions they might feel, or to come up with a story. When they were done, Shivers put another photo up on the screen. It was the same sculpture, but a different angle. Again, they drew and then wrote. Then, he put up a third photo -- same sculpture from a third angle.

When they were done, they talked it out.

"For each one of the pictures I did a different story," said Janell Martin. "A different story came from all three of the pictures, and that just shows... that the perspective on how you see it really does count."

Her classmate, Anisa Guess, saw it a bit differently.

"I put the modern man," she said. "I got the same vibe from each perspective, like each way we looked at it, it looked like he was sad and unfulfilled."

Everyone saw something different. One student saw brooding in the sculpture. Another, malice. One perceived nostalgia. Another, strength.

"We actually see what we know," Shivers said. "So we study this in psychology, so whatever's in us comes out as we look at the world. And so to become aware of that allows us to see into situations, which is called insight."

Senior Matt Hutchings admitted he's not an artist. But, by drawing things out -- it does help him see other perspectives.

"I'd still rather write than draw," he said. "But, in some parts drawing can help me understand something differently and get a deeper feeling for it."

Ten thousand miles away from Shivers's classroom, a University of Sydney professor is among several researchers who have studied visual literacy. Since 2012, Australia has incorporated visual literacy into its national curriculum.

Professor Jon Callow pointed out that visuals are everywhere, so they can't be ignored. So the question for researchers is what sorts of visual literacy practices are effective?

Callow said the key is thoughtful engagement with a variety of what he calls "visual texts."

"How might we help kids and students at certain points step back and go -- OK, I really like this and I think it's because they're doing these things, visually, as well as with audio or video or something like that as well," Callow said. "Or -- I just read something and I don't know if it's true or not. It looks like it could be true because it's a really slick website -- it has ABC news, or it has some other title at the top or an icon -- but I'm not convinced that just the look of it is what makes it credible, so I need to be able to back and look at the viability or validity of it and ask those questions as well."

Visual literacy advocates point out that it's not a magic pill, and some students respond better than others. But some form of this method has been around for centuries. Before there were words, there were pictures. The first letters were pictures, and some languages still use pictographic words or letters.

And of course there's the saying "A picture is worth a thousand words." Well, in visually literate classrooms, words are also worth a few pictures.

David finds and tells stories about education and learning for WNPR radio and its website. He also teaches journalism and media literacy to high school students, and he starts the year with the lesson: “Conflicts of interest: Real or perceived? Both matter.” He thinks he has a sense of humor, and he also finds writing in the third person awkward, but he does it anyway.

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