One of the primary questions that nags at me whenever I am using a visual text, or any text for that matter, in my classroom is how do I create an environment where all of my students are being supported in approaching the text in the same way? While the experiences and perspectives students bring with them to the classroom are out of my control, I have always felt strongly about creating a common language or approach to how we as a class examine texts. This requires a delicate balance between encouraging students to name what they see and describe their own interpretations and prompting students to go a bit further than they would on their own.
Simply being in a classroom amongst peers is an excellent starting point for nudging students a bit further into the interpretive process. Serafini asserts that “being visually literate is a social and cognitive process.”7 Like any kind of classroom norm or procedure, there needs to be flexibility and structure in any framework given to students when approaching a text. The social element, being aware of what other students are noticing or attending to in a text makes any set of questions, pointers or suggestions a starting point for interpretation rather than a checklist to complete before moving ahead.
Serafini provides such a framework, and a highly researched and technical one at that, for guiding students through the process of analyzing a visual text. Serafini calls this his “tripartite framework”8 and breaks the process of visual analysis down into the following areas: perceptual, structural, and ideological. This framework by Serafini is broken down by having each element of the framework guided by specific moves to encourage deep analysis of certain elements in a visual text. The order of Serafini’s framework is of particular importance moving from the Perceptual, which Serafini calls “Noticing, Navigating, and Naming Elements”9 to the Structural where analysis of the visual grammar of the image encourages looking for any possible symbols or structures meant to convey a deeper meaning, and finishing with the Ideological, where Serafini encourages “Analysis of the Social Practices and Sociocultural Context”10 of the visual text.
Moving from analysis of the surface elements of a visual text to considering the wider sociocultural context is mirrored in Gilda Williams’ “three jobs of communicative art-writing.” 11 Williams presents her framework in a series of three questions: “Q1 What is it?... Q2 What might this mean… Q3 Why does this matter to the world at large?”12 After each of these questions Williams gives a short paragraph of instructions for where an aspiring art-writer might find the answers. After the first question, “What is it?” Williams offers ideas such as “Look closely for meaningful details...perhaps regarding materials; size; selection of materials; placement.”13 As a classroom teacher searching for the ‘right way’ to look at art, it is striking to see the similarities in the brevity of Williams’ and Serafini’s frameworks, both being just three points, as well as the ways in which the frameworks suggest starting with the surface details of the work itself, then attempting to build meaning from the combination of those surface elements, and then finishing with considering the wider contexts in which the work might be understood as a cultural artifact.
Knowingly or unknowingly, a brilliant teacher named Mark Peters, with whom I was fortunate to work with some years ago when I was a long-term substitute teacher in the Humanities Department at Shepaug Valley High School in Washington Depot, CT, shared a strikingly similar framework he had used for many years with students when looking at visual as well as print texts. To this day, when Peters gives students a new text to examine, he poses two questions to the class: “What do you see? What does it mean?” Asking students to begin by taking note of surface structures and then pushing them to consider the meanings of those structures is similar to the first two elements of both Serafini’s and Williams’ aforementioned frameworks but put into straightforward language well-suited for the high school classroom. In using Peters’ framework with my own students, I sometimes add a third question: “How does it connect?” as I ask students to consider how a text might connect to other texts in a unit, other texts we have looked at in class, or even connections to their own lives or the world outside the classroom. Mark Peters’ two questions (plus my third add-on) along with Serafini’s and Williams’ models makes a clear case for a visual analysis framework that is concise, broadly applicable, and flexible.
In keeping with the spirit of this unit’s Afrofuturist approach analysis and composition, the framework that I employ in this unit is outlined in the sub-section below. It borrows from the three-part models described previously and adds a fourth element that encourages students to think ahead, beyond and outside the text itself. Afrofuturism considers the world that might be, and the framework employed in this model asks students to do the same in the context of what they see, understand or are able to connect to the text being analyzed. The framework also borrows from the structure of the aforementioned models, but maintains space for students to generate questions, prompts and reminders on their own. Ideally, the framework for each class would look a little differently to reflect the differences in approaches amongst the various sections I or any other teacher might have though the classes may be working on the same texts. I can also envision the framework being a tool that is revisited throughout the year and revised for clarity, brevity, and to suit the particular needs of a class or unit as the students and teacher see fit.
Framework for Student Analysis Guide
Before analyzing any visual text in this unit or future units, students will be asked to generate responses to the following questions in small groups and then collect those responses as an entire class. The teacher will take the responses for all groups, revise for clarity when necessary, and then use these student responses to create a protocol for analyzing visual texts. This protocol can be a dynamic one in that it can be revisited and revised as the class deems necessary after using it with different kinds of visual texts.
- First Look: What questions, phrases, or stems would help you look closely at the surface elements of a visual text?
- Making Meaning: What questions, phrases, or stems would help you think about what this visual text is trying to communicate?
- Connections: What questions, phrases, or stems would help you think about what other texts this visual text might be inspired by, remind you of, or connect with?
- Going Beyond: What are questions, phrases or stems would help you capture new questions or ideas inspired by this visual text?