Barbara A. Sasso
Storytelling, Discussions and Experiential Learning
To meet one of our goals of raising the mindfulness of students' use of smart technology, I felt it was imperative to include learning that could not happen on the Internet and required human contact: experiential learning and peer discussions. Perhaps the most powerful paths to knowledge are through experience, storytelling and discourse: this is how we innately learn the most important life lessons. These are lessons that will be integrated into students' memories and provide scaffolds for later knowledge.
Storytelling gives us a chance to hear each other's voice and see the expression in the eyes of the storyteller. It makes us mindful to listen to each other in real time. Storytelling is a good way to spark an interest in students. When we have an opportunity to tell a story, we make that story our own. We viscerally incorporate the message as we hold it in our bodies and breathe it out as air. It paradoxically becomes part of us as we share it with others. When we tell stories we own our words. They become ours and available then for written expression. Oral expression of ideas preceded writing, and one wonders if Plato had been right in criticizing
language. I left that as a question bridge to the next lesson, and pointed out that this very
method of communication would be the heart of the unit. Every lesson would end with a conversation. Real time. Real people. Student-run.
While we still do not have the keys to Ms. Frizzle's Magic School Bus, there are other ways we can take a field trip back in time. There is nothing more authentic than experiential learning. Perhaps more than any other teaching method, when we learn experientially, strong memories and scaffolds for new knowledge are formed. To allow students to gain the experience of being without their phones, they simply had to put them down. (A summary of student reactions to their "Day without Cell Phones" activity can be found in the appendix of this unit.) Their experience served as a way to give students prime insight into how psychologists work when they examine social trends, such as cell phone use: conduct research and collect data of the results. Students initially panicked, but I assured them that they were conducting a small experiment, similar to the ones we would be reading about from psychological journals. Although I wanted them to try to make it through their day without cell phones, they didn't have to succeed – what was important was to report what happened, and write a reflection on what they learned through their experience. Data.
Photography and Memory
Another assignment meant to encourage students to think about life separate from their cell phones resulted from some recent research on memory and photography. The look of one human being into the eyes of another in real life is so important that even people who have damage to their visual cortex and are otherwise blind can still differentiate between a human gaze that is direct and one that is diverted.
We all have awareness when someone is staring at us, even when we aren't looking. Research shows a powerful need to look at each other not on a
but in the real world
in order to form empathy and deep relationships with one another.
What are we missing when we stare at screens is also the subject of some surprising research by Linda Henkel. She has been researching the effects of memory when one takes endless photographs. She found that people who took countless pictures in museums were less likely to recall the art than those who took no photos or who took very few, carefully constructed photos.
In other words, when we believe we are documenting our lives by taking pictures, we are actually erasing our own memories of the events. As noted in a recent NPR story, when these pictures are uploaded into infinite streams of photos – far too many for anyone to sort through, especially in our technology driven lives – they and the events they portray are forgotten.
Who will ever sit down with tens of thousands of unsorted, uncaptioned photographs to remember birthdays and special trips? Particularly important are the photos taken of our own children, whose stories of origin will be forgotten, buried in the endless memory of our computers, but unknown in their own lives.
With an infinite way of manipulating images, one wonders what is real on a screen, in any case. As one of my students, Israel Williams, recently said, "Videotape is not proof. It is not live. Does it explain to anyone what happened days before, or in someone's past?"
Analysis of Visual Images to Improve Fiction and Nonfiction Text Comprehension
One of my objectives in this unit was to improve analysis and synthesis in reading and writing for all of our students. Our students are at many different academic levels. While visual media is often used to
text for students with low-level abilities, I strongly believe that it should be used instead to
text comprehension. Images are not a substitute for words. They are a communal bridge, even for the lowest-level readers. When we teach our children words, we point to an image. When children want to know a word, they point to an image. After encouraging storytelling and experiential learning to incorporate knowledge, we moved to create communication bridges through a visual medium. This also addressed our desire to utilize the heavily visual Internet as a pathway for students to improve text comprehension.
Exemplum and Allegorical Narratives as Useful Didactic Tools
I offer my apologies in advance for the unfortunate choice of medieval literary genres for the subheading. Let me explain. In contemplating how our students who struggle with reading comprehension might be given preemptive support for the textually complex articles that the unit would present, I considered a variety of visual presentations including newscasts and documentaries. I realized that what would work best would be the genre that philosophers from Plato and Ibn Sina to Jesus and Martin Buber understood as the best way to illustrate complex ideas: allegory. A simple narrative story can clearly convey a dense philosophical message: Plato's allegory of the cave simplifies the complex question of the nature of reality opposed to our perceptions. Why a former sinner should be not only
is illustrated in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. So to prepare the ground for students to comprehend complex psychological studies that reveal how technology skews reality and self-image, robs us of our focus, and takes over our memories, I thought it best to use images containing symbolic allegories. To build schema for our students to understand and analyze complex themes in
, we chose narrative and allegorical
as a platform. In an article in
, Samuel B. Day and Robert L. Goldstone report that learning is best transferred when an idea is first presented in a simple way, using images that are somewhat symbolic and narrative. These images then can be used to scaffold the presentation of complex ideas.
It also seemed clear to me that the most
visuals would be the most
, at least for teenagers. The images had to appeal to our students and for this reason the visual choices our students make are the ones teachers should consider using most often.
Here, mobile smart devices brought to class can be immediately transformed into legitimate research tools. Who is better equipped to search the Internet for spoken word, music videos, or short films? These types of searches do not require sophisticated research skills, and they are ways to allow students to be the instruments of their own education. This is not only empowering, but in fact, what students are already employing in their smart phone technology. Smart technology also provides students immediate access to the visual images for reviewing and reassessing as easily as they might have with photocopied text in their folders.
Using Rhetorical and Literary Terms with Visual Analysis
Common Core standards require language arts teachers to incorporate analysis of visual images into teaching language as if it were a given that all English majors also have studied visual arts. For those of us, myself included, who have by happenstance studied art history and film production, teaching visual analysis isn't particularly daunting. I can comfortably speak to color, modeling, perspective, composition, and choice of media. As a film major, I know about timing, editing, camera shots, and cinematography. But these terms are not necessary when we use images to enhance reading analysis and composition. Much of visual analysis is native and can connect directly in terminology to literary and rhetorical analysis. For our purposes, it might be best to align the analytical terminology to text analysis and keep the film and art jargon at bay.
When viewing media, students should be asked to assess the broader questions both before and after careful objective study: who or what agency is the author of the image, what is the subject of the image, what is the purpose, who is the audience and what is the claim the piece makes. Students should also explicitly be told that there is an author behind every image, and they should be asked to consider the possible agenda of that author in shaping or manipulating the image. In addition to the broader questions, students can be asked to look thoughtfully and with precision at the details of the image. Sometimes it is helpful to direct attention to a scene or even a frame of a motion picture or to divide a still image into units – similar to the way you might divide the stanzas of a poem or sections of a story. These should be completely objective observations. Be clear about the distinction between objective claims and subjective, analytical inferences: "The woman is frowning" is different from "her frowning is evidence that she is sad."
Common rhetorical or literary terms can be applied to visual images. Students can be asked to assess the artist's use of logos, ethos and pathos in shaping or framing an image. Clearly, the literary term "imagery" can be applied to visual images. Imagery includes representations of hearing, touch, taste, and odor, as well as vision – and these might also be addressed in a visual image, especially if is a video accompanied by sound. Symbolism is often a critical element of visual imagery common to written analysis. Does an object in the visual take on more significance than is literal? What else might it represent? If there are any narrative elements to the visual, these can be analyzed as story elements: setting, irony, tone, characterization, and conflict. Whose perspective is evident in the visual? What might be the purpose or message, and how do these elements contribute to our understanding of the meaning of the work? In good analysis, these details are used to describe, magnify, illuminate, or explain the purpose or message of the work as a whole, and to ascertain if the work is effective in conveying the message.
N. Katherine Hayles, in "Hyper and Deep Attention: The Generational Divide in Congitive Modes
cites research to suggest that children "growing up in media-rich environments literally have brains wired differently from those of people who did not come to maturity under that condition"
and that visual media may provide an important door for a modern generation of learners. Using the
of rhetorical and literary analysis in the analysis of visual images will help students transfer these terms and content meaning as well, to their text analysis. Having students analyze affective narrative visuals will boost reading comprehension in text with similar thematic content.
For the visual analysis part of our unit, we placed students in small groups that were academically mixed to allow them to communally assess elements of the visuals. We used simple graphic organizers for students to gather information. This allowed students to cooperate in observing and writing down observations and assessments. In classrooms where projectors are not available, students can view the videos on their smart devices. This was particularly useful for students who were absent on the days of the viewings, as I was able to email them links. After viewing videos, students presented observations in a class discussion about what they saw and what it might mean: in other words, they gathered examples and provided analysis. Students then were able to add discussion points to their graphic organizers to gain more complex understandings of the videos.
From Images to Text: Schema to Build Comprehension and Analytic Skills for Fictional and Nonfictional Works
Building from visual to text analysis, students then read two fictional stories dealing with the unit topics. Students were asked to consider the overall message of the stories and then go back and note stylistic devices that helped to convey this message. Students were quick to find rhetorical and literary devices such as pathos, caricature and other characterization tools, imagery, setting, perspective, and symbolism in the stories. The short literary essays that they wrote on these stories incorporated good examples, and analysis was reinforced by using the same terminology as they used when analyzing fictional videos. Graphic organizers can be devised with similar terminology to allow students to gather examples, provide analysis, and organize their essays. (See Appendix.)
I next had students in the same small groups assess a variety of nonfictional texts on the same topics presented in the videos and fictional works. The texts, drawn from many sources including newspapers, online journals and psychological studies, ranged in complexity and length to challenge students at various academic levels. Students helped each other gather important facts, discussed their analysis with one another and shared the important information about their articles with the whole class. Students listening to the presentations took notes on articles that interested them and asked questions about the information revealed in these sources. Students also created citations for their sources.
For all of these lessons, I collected and graded their graphic organizers to assess how well they comprehended text, gathered examples, and provided analysis or commentary on their reading. As a warm-up to their final essay, I had students use two nonfictional sources and write a simple comparative essay on the points presented in each. While I had been impressed by their literary essays, I found these comparative essays striking. I taught this unit at the end of the school year when I had a very good awareness of my students' capabilities, and it seemed quite clear that their overall reading comprehension, ability to gather meaningful text, and ability to provide questioning and thoughtful commentary were significantly improved. While many things such as methodology and preparation for the unit may have contributed to a marked increase in reading and writing abilities, I believe that the videos presented for students' first analyses allowed them to visualize the concepts presented in the text. My evidence was in these preliminary essays: while students were required to focus on two nonfictional text articles of their choice, they asked if they could also include videos. Many of my students chose to do so, mainly students who were not as strong in reading and writing skills. It was clear to me that the visual information, presented in short thematic narratives, allowed students cognitive access to complex psychological studies and newspaper articles about self-identity, Internet addictions, and the isolation caused by our new communications media.
Original Synthesis Essay: The Effect of New Technology on Our Lives
The final paper for this unit was an original essay that would utilize visual, fictional, nonfictional, and experiential sources to support a student's claim. The paper needed to use at least four text sources and was expected to incorporate visual sources, fictional, and experiential material. All sources needed to be documented in a works cited section at the end of the paper. After reading the fifty-four papers handed in by my very enthusiastic group of tenth graders, I am very happy to report that most of them did very well indeed. Many of them showed a surprising improvement in reading comprehension compared to their abilities at the beginning of the unit. Their ability to accurately cite text and provide thoughtful comments or analysis was also impressive. They incorporated vocabulary from the texts we read effectively in their own writing, and they exhibited an overall improvement in their fluency as writers as well. The success of this unit lay in the incorporation of many different methods of teaching, in that we chose a topic of high interest to our students, and did a lot of preparation for the difficult readings through class discussion and by providing avenues of experiential learning. In addition, incorporating videos primarily to introduce complex thematic elements and secondarily to teach analytic skills proved to be an incredibly powerful scaffold for students to transfer to their ability to understand and analyze complex text.
Teaching Authentic Research Skills and Other Important Uses of Smart Technology
As we develop this unit next year, we plan to include teaching students how to use the Internet more effectively in developing their research skills, and asking them to do more sophisticated research for their final project. Our school has access to a number of databases that offer reliable sources for student research, and we have access to different online citation and research programs, such as EasyBib. While we do have computers in our library, there aren't enough to accommodate all the students we have on any given day who might need to do research, a skill that is now essential for success in any college environment. For our school of about fourteen hundred students, we currently have one very busy librarian: How easy it could be to introduce some basic research skills to students in a short lesson in our classrooms, asking them to
their smart phones? More extensive research could be conducted at home, but the ability for a teacher to walk students visually through finding data bases and to show them how to experiment with word selections in searches is the key they need. Showing them visually, in the medium which is the best learning environment for our digitally native students, how to operate EasyBib could easily take less time than it took for my students to show me how to operate Instagram. This year, I used my Smart Board to show students how to cite their sources. While writing their rough drafts, I noticed two students using their phones to figure out how to cite sources they had come upon independently.
Needless to say, the phones could also be invaluable for us to conduct surveys of students, to connect to groups of students through texts, especially in emergencies, and to allow students to access Naviance, a program currently in use by many schools across the country for college and career planning and applications.