This unit centers around two pedagogical ideas within the context of the secondary English classroom. The first is that by sharpening skills of critical analysis, students can use those skills across multiple disciplines and in their lives outside of school. The second is that students need more opportunities to respond to texts through the creation of their own texts. Drawing from work that I do in my own classroom, the structure of this YNHTI Seminar led by Dr. Ferguson, and changes happening in college-level composition courses like the First Year Writing course at UCONN, this unit asks students to apply skills of critical analysis to three visual texts by Clotilde Jimenez and then respond to those texts by composing a creative text of their own. Intended to be a unit done with students in the beginning stages of the school year, this unit will provide a foundation for visual literacy skills that can be put to use in other arenas of study both in the English classroom and in other classes throughout the rest of the academic year. For this unit, the three visual texts are all by the artist Clotilde Jimenez, an artist who works primarily in mixed media collage.
Before getting into the specific theories that undergird the critical analysis and creative response elements of this unit, I begin with the aspirational vision of an Afrofuturist classroom aesthetic. Having the chance to learn about Afrofuturism from Dr. Ferguson and the artists he introduced to our seminar group has been nothing short of transformational in terms of how I view possibilities within my own classroom. The section titled “An Afrofuturist Classroom Aesthetics” lays out how this vision may be put to use in the context of this particular unit and in my classroom moving forward.
The section called “The Task” lays out the specifics of my unit in terms of how my students and I would spend our time during different portions of the unit. Having three visual texts as the centerpieces of the crucial analysis portion of the unit is inspired again by the weekly rhythms of our seminar groups’ work with Dr. Ferguson. Instead of examining a wide range of visual texts, we spend five, ten, sometimes even fifteen minutes examining a single image. By constructing this unit around three specifically chosen pieces of art, I hope to instill the same sense of wonder and endless possibility within a single image Dr. Ferguson conjured in our seminar group.
When considering how to support the development of critical analysis skills in secondary students, there are a number of different mnemonics, frameworks, and approaches to choose from. In all honesty, as a classroom teacher it can be quite overwhelming to sift through! Drawing from Frank Serafini’s Reading the Visual, Gilda Williams’ How to Write about Contemporary Art and incredibly durable advice from a mentor teacher I had the chance to work with years ago, in the section called “How We See Text” I propose a simple and widely adaptable set of questions to support students as they approach a visual text for the purposes of critical analysis.
Sentence-stems or sentence-starters have been incredibly useful for me as a teacher striving to help students find their voice as writers or as participants in class discussions. The section called “How We Respond to Text” draws on my experience in the classroom, research on using discussion to drive inquiry-based writing by Thomas M. McCann, and advice from They Say, I Say by Graff, Birkenstein and Durst to provide examples of prompts that might encourage critical, creative responses to texts. In keeping with the intention of making this unit a flexible framework adaptable within a variety of classroom contexts, this section will leave students with written responses to texts that can be used for a formal discussion, as prewriting for a piece of academic writing, or as ideas to drive a more creative kind of response.
Ideas about how to assess what students know and are able to do in the secondary classroom continue to move away from standardized tests and towards portfolio-based assessment, project-based learning, and performance-assessment tasks. Across the entire English Department in New Haven Public Schools, we are attempting our own shift away from standardized assessments. My hope is that this unit will serve to further support the development of assessments that engage students in asking meaningful questions and encourage them to use their voices as they search for answers. My vision for how this model might look in practice as well as ways similar models are at work in other places including the University of Connecticut’s First Year Writing program are in the penultimate section titled “Composing a Creative Response.”