Students in 2014 have a problem they don't yet recognize. The problem results from a time waster, a new version of which each generation of students seems to boast, hindering the progress of many. The problem is relatively new – seldom does a teacher in modern day catch a student passing a note, and students are certainly not often distracted by the goings on of the world outside the classroom window. But there is a pervasive distracting behavior, quite common, and quite often disciplined. I speak, of course, of cell phone use; of the countless hours students spend on the most modern form of information gathering and communication – the Internet and social networking, more often than not on their phones, tablets or other handheld devices, easy to draw from a pocket or backpack sleeve and misguidedly believed to be hidden from teacher view. The problem applies to students of all ages, but particularly to those on the precipice of higher education or the job force, forming habits they may, unfortunately in this case, last them a lifetime. This curricular unit is designed specifically for inner-city twelfth graders in an arts-focused magnet school, but it can be applied to any classroom. The paradox I will be addressing is, in 2014, the problem is juxtaposed directly with the solution. This curricular unit will challenge educators as to why we are disciplining this behavior, when we could be fostering the better use of it.
Students use their cell phones to text-message each other (hence the happenstance of actual note-passing being rendered anachronistic), to log onto social networks, and to surf the Internet. And right there, beneath the surface of the status updates and fascinating goings-on of their friends, is a virtual world of information, available to all of them – if they only had the capability and inclination to use it effectively – for learning, for research, and ultimately, it is hoped, for personal enlightenment.
Historically, students in school have met with predominantly fictional texts – novels and novellas, short stories and excerpts, to name a few. Recently, particularly with the growing advent of Common Core State Standards, we are shifting to more non-fiction focused instruction. Students are reading news articles, essays, blogs, and even topical books. Many are materials provided for them by their teachers, but so much more is available to them at the touch of a button through an Internet search. What we as teachers are left with is a problem – how do we equip our students with the proper tools with which to navigate the myriad kinds of information available to them; to instill in them the skills necessary to filter what has become a world of information, un-distilled, unregulated, and not always legitimate? As much of the information students are confronted with via the World Wide Web is presented through pictures – a news story or blog is always enhanced by the picture(s) included – it will become increasingly important for them to be able to interpret the meaning of the pictures they see, as the very medium of the Web itself is growing more and more dependent on pictures.
This curricular unit focuses on the images we find included in modern media – literature, essays, news stories, blogs and Web pages – and the history of the use of pictures to convey information. Students will study the evolution of communicative images (pictures used to communicate meaning) from cave drawings to momentous points in the evolution of images with regard to media, modern news sources, and social networks like BuzzFeed, Instagram and Facebook, Internet memes, and hallmark instances of the in-between. But to what end? Once students can navigate information on the Web through pictures, how can they immediately put their new skill to use? To do that, students will create a graphic research paper. Mirroring the effectiveness of pictures in the ubiquitous modern graphic novel, students will enhance their skills in presentation of research by creating a research project that, like the modern Internet, will rely heavily on the use of pictures.
Thus, students born of the information age will come away with a more mature understanding of the data they are confronted with on a daily basis. The cell phones they use so loyally for distractions and time-wasters will now have the new possibility to be transformed into a source of enlightenment and an opportunity to enhance their studies. Computers will evolve from simple devices for keeping in touch with friends or even a dangerous place where predators lurk, to resources for communication and study. As these students go off to college, the hope is that they will go with the personal resources to navigate electronic resources and to be successful in research as in life.