Educators have long known that images of all kinds help students to effectively grasp and retain knowledge or lessons being taught in the classroom. When introducing a poet, a portrait will catch students' attention, building interest and curiosity while attaching a concrete image to a bard that might otherwise disappear with the ring of a bell. Historical novels, complemented by a map or a photograph, make the past come to life. Tracing the process of photosynthesis will surely be remembered much more completely with colored charts and time lines that help tell the story. Look in any classroom: images, paintings, photographs, artwork, and maps adorn the walls, supporting learning and providing that extra step that is needed for so many visual learners. In a world in which teachers increasingly find themselves competing with cell phones, text messages, high-speed images and shortening attention spans, these images become important reference points that can be focused on throughout a unit, anchors that will help students visualize the literature being studied. At the same time these images--the photos, the illustrations, the maps, the reproductions of different colors, textures and mediums--can become an individual student's launching point from which he or she can, as an individual and as a part of a larger group or community, deepen his or her learning.
But the question now is, where does the teacher cease to actively lead the students through this enhancement of images and media, and where does the interaction between image and student take over in the learning process? In
Classroom Instruction that Works
, Robert Marazano, Debra J. Pickering, and Jane E. Pollock, as part of their work on how best to manage a classroom, explore the ways in which students process information. The authors assert that "knowledge is stored in two forms--a linguistic form and an imagery form."
While teachers often rely on the "linguistic form" or what we associate with language and the use of words, the "imagery form" of knowledge is often underdeveloped in the classroom. The authors go on to assert that when teachers do help students with this type of work, "the effects on achievement are strong. It has even been shown that explicitly engaging students in the creation of nonlinguistic representations stimulates and increases activity in the brain."
Here Marazano and his colleagues are asserting through research-based strategies something that many teachers have known in their hearts for years: that introducing imagery and nonlinguistic elements into any lesson is a sure way to heighten learning and increase student engagement in the classroom. Marazano, Pickering, and Pollock go on to explore the utilization of graphic organizers, pictographs and kinesthetic activity among other techniques, to illustrate how nonlinguistic elements can be used in the classroom.
We often forget the importance of building background knowledge in today's classroom. How thoroughly can we teach Elie Wiesel's
if students know nothing about the Holocaust? How deeply can students comprehend the author's message, without knowing the source of the misery and pain in the story? Can students really visualize and understand what is taking place in a Shakespearean plays without being given some context first? How can students empathize with and truly understand the plight of Oliver or Pip without learning some background on Dickens' Victorian England? Building background knowledge, giving students some context before reading literature of a different era places the student in that world, takes him or her away from the 21
century, into a world about which he or she knows very little. Students are more likely to enjoy the literature if they are easily able to interpret nuances and significant differences from their worlds.
This unit is meant to build background knowledge in my ninth-grade class before beginning to read Steinbeck's
Of Mice and Men
, but its strategies can be applied to the study of any novel or author on which a teacher wishes to focus. My intention is to encourage students to create pieces of knowledge in a variety of forms that, when looked at together displayed in the classroom, will foster a solid image-based understanding of Steinbeck and his world that students will refer to throughout their reading. The students will be encouraged to unlock Steinbeck's world through a host of activities and assignments that will help them to maintain a higher level of interest throughout the reading and simultaneously encourage higher-level learning and a broader knowledge base that will help them better analyze literature.
In this unit the arrangement and manipulation of images becomes a group activity that propels the learning process within the learning community. Edward R. Tufte in his book
comments on the process of creating images:
The idea is to make designs that enhance the richness, complexity, resolution, dimensionality, and clarity of the content. By extending the visual capacities of paper, video, and computer screen, we are able to extend the depth of our own knowledge and experience.
Tufte's examination of images in his book highlights their importance in the world, not only for the building of background and the strengthening of knowledge, but in all our understandings and lack thereof. Complementing information with images, with graphs, with photographs, artwork and visual representations brings a new dimension of interpretation to information and a new level or dimension to students' knowledge. In this unit students will expand their knowledge on a wide array of topics and grow through the experience they will share as image gatherers.