Activity One: Pictures in Learning, Pictures in Life
Students should be inspired to think in a different way about the images they see every day, as well as the use of their cell phones. By beginning the unit with "Everyone – please take out your cell phones," students might be pleasantly confused as to who you are, let alone what will happen next. Once cell phones are out (or students without the use of such devices are on computers), they should retrieve an old or search for a new picture that means something to them. It must be appropriate for class, and can be of anything – family, a fun event, or even a celebrity or movie-still. What does this image mean to them? After they write a brief journal response, they could be asked: What do you think this image might communicate to others?
Every image is meaningful – some are socially significant. Students may respond to what "socially significant" might mean. Answers may include – it means something to most people; it is relatable on a mass scale; it encompasses a theme or pathos that is universal.
Plato's Cave and cave drawings
"Plato's Cave" is a thought experiment that can be utilized for a wonderful activity surrounding the use of images to communicate a message. The thought activity surrounds a concept of a cave full of beings, bound and forced to look in one direction, communicating with each other about images they see displayed on a wall in front of them. The animalistic images are projected on the wall by "masters" holding puppets up to a fire. The reader must decide if the bound residents of the cave are forced to interpret themselves as the beings projected on the wall, as this is all they have ever known, so the voices they hear of each other and the masters can only be interpreted as those of the shadows on the wall (Appendix A-1). Students may work individually or in groups to draw an interpretation of what they've read – what the cave looks like, leading to a class discussion on the significance of images.
This provides a segue into talking about the difference between that "cave" and the cave early man lived in (cave drawings/prehistoric art). The Lascaux cave drawings are very early socially significant images. In order to discuss the origin of language and whether images coincided with that, students could be prompted: Is anyone familiar with this work (Appendix A-2)?
Cave painting of a horse found in the Lascaux Caves in France – estimated to have been created during the Paleolithic era. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Lascaux2.jpg
Following a class discussion on this drawing from the Lascaux Caves, students could ask: What makes this socially significant? Answers can include: whoever drew it knew what a horse looked like; a horse must have been a common thing back then if it was drawn like this; everyone knows what a horse looks like.
How we interpret images speaks to how we interpret the world. According to Susan Sontag, "photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire."
Therefore, the significance of the image as a means of communication is paramount. Images are a part of language, and both factor into perception.
Perception, with David M. Eagleman and Susan Sontag
Working with several creative images that contain optical illusions, students may be challenged to consider on what exactly is their view of reality based. They will begin with an exercise incorporating said images in the form of handouts. Many fun examples of optical illusions can be found online (Appendix A-3). For these purposes, we will use a blind spot text outlined in
by David M. Eagleman – wherein the subject closes one eye while looking at a picture of a plus sign and a circle, and brings the picture closer to their face. At a certain point, the circle disappears into our "blind spot." (Appendix A-3) Regarding this clear gap in our field of vision, Eagleman argues that "You're not perceiving what's out there. You're perceiving whatever your brain tells you."
With these kinds of holes in our vision, how can we assume that anything we perceive is real? Student responses may include: We have formed a common agreement on consistencies in what we see; we all agree that a plus sign looks like what we just stared at to find our blind spot; since prehistoric times, our view of a horse is roughly that of the drawing in the Lascaux Caves. We like to have our reality "confirmed" as Sontag puts it, an experience that is "enhanced by photographs."
What is it about us that makes us like reality to be confirmed – does anyone usually go around thinking about the fact that perception is reality, and what we see is simply what our brain tells us is there? An exercise teachers may wish to consider is to have students read excerpts from the works by Eagleman and Sontag (Appendix A-4) and then respond to the following prompt: How do pictures enhance our grasp of what's real? Use evidence from our activities and readings in support of your response.
Activity Two: Pictures and Modern Media
Thought about the image's role in the evolution of our perception is imperative to this curricular unit, as it assists students in considering how important images are in our processes of communication. In the modern era, we have access to both archives of photographs and images of old, and practically everything new that is available. Teachers may be inclined throughout the course of this unit to take a look at images that moved people, as well as the sources of these images, as this will lead into the study of images to navigate the vast amounts of information available to students.
Photos that Change the World
To decide exactly which images to present to students, it does not hurt to "consult" image experts, as it were, for advice on the ones that have had an impact. In a thoughtful TED Talk by Jonathan Klein entitled "Photos that Change the World," the head of Getty Images (Appendix A-5), the leader of one of the world's most wide-ranging and complete stores of stock images, discusses the impact images have on all of us – even in some cases causing real change. Klein says, "Images have provoked reactions in people, and those reactions have caused change to happen." A possible prompt for students based on this video is: Is this true? After watching the TED talk, students can spotlight several of the seminal images highlighted in Klein's presentation, analyzing them for their communicative merit. One particularly apt image that Klein spotlights in the talk is the view of earth from the moon – both the first image ever taken of this, for some perspective on the evolution of photography
space travel, and then a clear, vivid picture from the Apollo 8 mission are good examples for students (Appendix A-6). One might consider whether Klein's saying "some people credit the environmental movement to our seeing the planet like this for the first time"
is true. A thoughtful expression to students of the importance of this image is conveyed by asking if they can imagine what people must have thought about conservation before they knew what the whole earth actually looked like.
Modern Online Media/Social Media
The following activities fit into a lesson plan that would help students synthesize the role of pictures in modern media and social networking. This may be a particularly engaging aspect of a curricular unit such as this since, as aforementioned, social media and Internet search are already predominant aspects of student's "distracting" behavior with their cell phones. Here would be an appropriate place to conduct surveys on what exactly social media means to students. Why and how are Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat or any other social media important to their lives? What do they enhance, and how? How would any of these media platforms change if pictures were taken out of the equation – prohibited from the newsfeed or the Twitter feed? Would they be the same? Responses may include that obviously they would not be the same; that they'd be virtually unidentifiable; that the medium of social networking sites would simply not work without the inclusion of pictures. Students should consider why that is, and teachers may wish to employ a writing assignment for synthesis/check for understanding: "Why are social media dependent on pictures? Include evidence from our study of the evolution of communicative images in media to support your response."
BuzzFeed and image-based online news
BuzzFeed is an enigmatic online news site that has been known to juxtapose articles titled "What Life Is Like For People On Both Sides of The Israel-Gaza Conflict," with others entitled "The 100 Most Important Cat Pictures of All Time." While news topics vary greatly, the one constant is that BuzzFeed relies heavily on images in its journalism. Covering most of the world's major news stories (as well as some entertainment and even clear fluff), BuzzFeed uses several (even sometimes 10 or more) pictures in its news articles where other news sites would use only one or two. Therefore, the site makes an interesting study of the modern inclusion of pictures in informational media. How does one, if at all, trust a news site that has the aforementioned articles juxtaposed on the same homepage? Just such a quandary may be interesting to modern students, and certainly pertains to this unit as relevant study. What does this say about modern media? Student responses could include: lots of different methods need to be used to gain the modern news reader's attention; people like to see the light side of things while reading about heavy, important current events; the reporting of news is becoming more modernized, and streamlined with other more frivolous types of media; and, most importantly, you don't have to trust it – you can always check another source to confirm or refute the validity of any Web source (a skill of paramount importance to good research). To come to these responses, perusing BuzzFeed on a projected screen with students to see that legitimate news articles can come from the same Web site as lists of cute cat pictures and quizzes about which Harry Potter character your personality best meshes with, will be helpful. Articles like the Israel-Gaza (or other current) news article can also be compared to articles of similar subject matter on other more established news sites, like CNN:
Students could try to decipher how the images impact the reporting of the news, after which they can be assigned class work to reintegrate use of their cell phones (or class computer if they don't have one), to find a legitimate news article (an issue of valid national or international concern) on www.BuzzFeed.com, and find a similar article on cnn.com or any local or other reputable news site. How do the many pictures in the BuzzFeed article impact the reader's view of what's being reported? Does it enhance understanding or feeling about the situation?
Activity Three: The Graphic Research Paper
Research papers are tough. They are tough on students who lack the skills or inclination for good research and the presentation of said research, and tough on the educators who work tirelessly to inspire even the most lackluster manifestation of such. The graphic research paper is meant to solve two problems – that of alleviating some lack of student engagement in the research process by offering an alternative product, and the alternative product itself – i.e., a completely new, artistic way to look at research presentation. Keeping intact all research processes, and adding how the study of pictures can enhance that process, are key factors. At this point in the unit, teachers may want their students to have developed an understanding of the evolution of the use of images for communication, up to and including Web content of the modern era; and that this understanding is conducive to navigating the Internet for dependable information. For the graphic research paper, students will be tasked with putting these skills to the test, as it were. Study of communicative images will evolve to synthesis – i.e., students will be using images themselves to convey information. Like the popular genre of the graphic novel, the graphic research paper will tell a story in the mixed media of pictures and words. The "demand for double literacy," as W.J.T. Mitchell put it,
is at the forefront of modern communication. As students have learned in this unit, pictures now more than ever are the basis for gleaning information. And so they will perpetuate that, in as creative a manner as they are willing and able to employ.
The "double literacy" of mixed media – W.J.T. Mitchell and Ken Robinson
How dependent are words on pictures and vice-versa? What are some examples of words and pictures working together? If teachers should be inclined to ask this of students, responses may include: Web sites like the ones we have looked at; comic strips/comic books and graphic novels, advertisements, pictures with captions in text books, any media on which words are extremely dependent on pictures and vise-versa. One might be inclined to question whether all media are this way – do words enhance pictures and pictures words when viewing online content or any media? W.J.T. Mitchell, in his book
, asserts that "all media are mixed media . . . . there are no 'purely' visual or verbal arts."
Therefore, we as viewers or readers (or both simultaneously, as it were), must depend on a "double literacy,"
as Mitchell puts it, or the ability to interpret both pictures and words at the same time – that the two, when presented together, enhance the understanding of the person experiencing them.
An opportunity exists to reintegrate cell phone usage as a class work assignment. Individually or in groups, students can be challenged to use their cell phones to find examples of media they believe to be homogenous – i.e., are "purely visual or verbal," as Mitchell put it. As much media is interdependent as such, students may have a hard time finding examples (at least with online and modern media content) – if they cannot, all the better, point made. However even if this is the case, it can be pointed out that things like dance and interpretive art are areas where it might be argued that the message is purely visual; or Web sites that rely heavily or only on text are areas where it might be argued that the message is solely verbal. Otherwise, much of our art, entertainment and modern media are interdependent on words and pictures enhancing meaning for each.
In order to inspire students to not simply combine media, but to integrate them – using pictures and words symbiotically – strong examples could be used. One such example is the video "Changing Education Paradigms" by Sir Ken Robinson on Youtube (Appendix A-7). It is an animated video set to a speech given on the state and future of education. The pictures and animation help enhance understanding of the speech, and students can be solicited to analyze this. Reponses may include: seeing a drawing of what he was talking about made it clearer – things like the ADHD epidemic and how schools are modeled like factories are made clearer by the pictures demonstrating it
The Visual Thesis Statement
The task of writing an effective thesis statement is difficult even in words. Expecting students to not feel frustrated that they also must enhance it with a visual image can be daunting. The goal with the visual thesis statement is to allow for the visual aspect to ease the synthesis of writing an effective thesis statement. If they can express it visually, maybe that can aid them in writing one that is more effective. So, how does one represent visually something like, "Vincent Van Gogh's mental instability, while unfortunate, contributed to his tendency to paint in ways that moved people, and inspired generations of artists since"? Students might find an image online or create one themselves that is appropriately representative of their thesis statement. It will not be without the help of words, however – the objective is for the two media to work symbiotically to express what each respectively would not be able to alone.
Choosing a subject to research
To assist students in choosing their subject, teachers may review Jonathan Klein's point in his TED Talk on photography that images have the power to effect change. It is possible to widen the berth a bit (to allow for effective student choice in this project) and choose a subject who has effected change through visual art. Much homage is paid to writers who have effected political, cultural, economic or artistic change – and much of this is covered in high school English classes. This is an opportunity for students to mentally and academically incorporate visual artists into that cannon. They may choose an artist or painter or sculptor, a photographer or film-maker or actor, a graphic novelist or designer – who students will decide, through their research, has used their work to affect change in the world. Students will combine words and pictures to present a thesis, research and support, outlining how this person has caused that change.
For the purposes of this curricular unit, students should choose a visual artist who has effected change either culturally, politically, artistically, or in media, such as:
Vincent Van Gogh – artistic, cultural, mental health change
Pablo Picasso – artistic, cultural change
Andy Warhol – artistic, cultural change
Rene Mondrian – artistic, design, media change
David Carson – design, media change
Banksy – artistic, political change
Stanley Kubric – artistic, cultural, media change
Spike Lee – artistic, socio-political, cultural change
Denzel Washington – artistic, social change
Laverne Cox (transgender actor in popular TV series
Orange is the New Black
) – societal, civil rights change
Process and Formatting for the Graphic Research Paper
Along with standard research methods, it is important to stress here that modern online research can be legitimized using pictures. When outlining with students which Web sites are valid, it can be noted that many, as is the case with several we have gone over throughout the course of this curricular unit, incorporate images along with expository prose. In fact, for many Web sites, images are an indication of just such legitimacy (What would a news story be without the photojournalism to illuminate the points?). While not necessarily always the case, images can certainly add an aspect of legitimacy, if only for appeal to modern information-seekers.
Along those lines, students should present their research in the same format as either an established graphic novel, pictorial news site (like Buzzfeed), a collection of pictures (either found or created on their own) and captions, or they can be given more autonomy to create their own style – as long as it meets parameters set in place by the teacher (i.e., a minimum allotment of panels/pictures and a maximum for word usage). Teachers may wish at this point to provide further examples of what their projects could and should look like – graphic novels could be exhibited in class, comic strips and comic books, or any media by which a story is told using pictures alongside words to communicate a message. Other strong examples include
Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art
– a study on comics books
in the form of a comic strip by Scott McCloud, and
Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography
by Chester Brown (Appendix A-8).
Students should be inspired to be as creative as possible.