Thinking in pictures or s.o.l.

I hold before my mental eye Unfolding the Napkin, American Born Chinese, When I’m Playing with My Cat…, and Academic Conversations–distinctly different books using a variety of graphic images to convey distinctly different ideas. Just yesterday my sophomore English class enjoyed a Skype visit with Gene Yang, American Born Chinesewhose graphic novel caused an outbreak of reading and laughing, and whose warm personality translated as a love for people and joy at his craft.  His skill at combining eastern and western cultures in comic form led to great conversations about racial stereotypes, the juxtaposition of Judeo-Christian religious text with Taoist images, and the complex relationship between art and faith.Unfolding the Napkin by Dan Roam

An hour ago I was tilting both my head and the page in several directions, as I fiddled with the effect of the “anamorphic skull” in a Holbein painting appended to a chapter on the friendship between Boetie and Montaigne in My Cat… . I had wanted to teach a humanities class this year, but had too few sign-ups for the elective. I would have used a painting just such as the one they describe so well, full of contradictions and divisions brought into subjection under a timeless friendship. [The skull is at the bottom, a diagonal shape.]

At my elbow is Dan Roam’s napkin book, subtitled “The Hands-On Method for Solving Complex Problems with Simple Pictures”, which led me promptly to begin illustrating every thought in my head. (I’m done.) And I previewed Zwiers & Crawford’s practical guide to classroom conversations in math, science, language arts, and history, which uses charts and graphs creatively and effectively throughout. I see myself as knowing and practicing the instructional principles they advocate, yet having learned to do so only through many years of trial and error,  the techniques found piecemeal; to see them organized here in a resource for teachers is a way of clarifying for me just how much classroom conversations can achieve.  The latter two books make me envious, because while I appreciate a well-placed diagram, I wish I could use one better when I present information to my students and peers. I also enjoy teaching young people how to use drawings, diagrams, and graphic organizers to arrange information and to both reflect thinking and to cultivate more thinking; I only wish I could do it consistently.

Behind me in the next room lies Matt Kish’s Moby Dick in Pictures, a book whose heft, color, and imagination drew my AP students into a sensuous experience: they had to touch every page. Over the weekend I attended the Karl Jenkins Mass for Peace, which was accompanied by a slide-show and some motion picture images at the Salt Lake Choral Artists performance. I came away feeling the visuals detracted from the power of the music rather than enhancing it, whereas in the Matt Kish book, only a fraction of the original Melville novel is actually printed, so I don’t feel as though there is a competition between the word and image.

The marriage of text and image is undoubtedly as old as the melding of music and lyrics – if we allow text to mean verbal language either written, spoken, or sung. [I was intrigued by a definition of writing as “language choice on paper” in Writing To Learn, co-authored by Gordon Pradl, whichI have been adapting to include non-print media.] But the English classroom has done a pretty good job of obviating those pesky images that interfere with pure text, as if our classes are laboratories in which the practice of pure science is conducted and, like teenaged Kants or Descartes, the celebrants at the altar of philosophy remain unsullied by sensual experience, so as to render themselves more valid thinkers. Poppycock!

As a concession to the digital age, I am supporting my sophomores as they conduct an experiment in which half the class, randomly divided, watches the film To Kill A Mockingbird prior to reading the novel, and the other half reads the book first then views the movie. They want to determine how and if the experiences of the two groups differ.

But as much fun as it has been considering the illustrations for various purposes, from fiction to philosophy, I have a far less esoteric need for consulting a drawing at the moment: my old iron has left a yellow water spot on my new white french cuffed shirt, leaving me in a deep funk. According to the illustrations in the highly specialized plans at Proctor-Silex, which look as though a military expert must have been involved in their preservation (“Your secret mission: capture a seventh generation photocopy on microfiche.”) . My favorite is page 4, “Know Your Iron”. Apparently I was supposed to empty the iron of water after each steaming. Does everyone do that? Or am I the only one who perennially manages to get a water stain on the only white shirt I own as soon as it is out of its packaging and unpinned?

If I, who grew up poring over instruction manuals for stereo equipment and model cars, am mocking this online aid for its antiquated feel, I have to believe that my own digitally native students must react similarly when I turn on the old overhead (I made a pact with myself NOT to this year!) or crank out another handout in Times New Roman, where the greatest stylistic choice is between 10 and 12 point fonts (I have gone mostly paperless as well).  What is new is the expectation by a reader or viewer suckled on technology to be fed a diet of images that do some of the work that text has previously done. But what is also relatively new is that those of us who were used to a text-rich environment are learning to read visual matter in an image-rich environment as well. I am embarrassed when I look back at my manually typed college papers with their idiosyncrasies of uneven margins, variable ink supply, and erasures, and I compare them with the contemporary papers produced on word processors with variable fonts and optional illustrating graphics, which look so much sharper in presentation alone, regardless of content.

Visual presentation of ideas has always been important, whether it’s Jesus holding out a loaf and a cup, a font or typeset whose beauty is described in loving detail on the last page of any quality book, or posters for a Presidential campaign or the War Effort. Words and images matter to our culture. As a teacher, I can help create a media-rich environment for my students that begins with the bulletin board, but extends to my wiki, white board, walls, and web sites I encourage our class to use, such as Goodreads, or Diigo-style internet bookmarks, post-its, and highlighters. I like to use color when I comment on electronic paper submissions. Ultimately, the students assume control as they become the ones who design and create the look of the class wiki, compose graphic novels of their own, or put together a stylish and polished paper or power point presentation.

I would be interested to learn what others are doing to offer their students more control over their learning environments, and ultimately over their own writing and other productions. My secret fear is that some of my sophomores will prefer the film to the book, and civilization as we know it will tumble. My secret is out. I suspect that the very best thing I can do is to allow them the freedom to arrive at their conclusion, and encourage them to explore and evaluate the reasons behind their judgments. Now that Halloween is ended, what terrors and secrets do you hide?


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