Building Bridges With Visual Literacy

“Would you be willing to give up your seniors if…” my principal asked me.

“Yes,” I said, cutting him off. “However you’re ending that proposition – yes is my answer.”

And that’s how a group of lackadaisical seniors became my entryway into teaching refugee students six years ago. It had been a frustrating year and I was ready for something different. The fact that the offer was sweetened with the chance to co-teach alongside my mentor (and the smartest teacher I know) was just icing on the cake.

However, we saw that it would quickly be much more difficult than we had anticipated, even after we were given funding, a 90-minute block, and creative freedom to design our classes and curriculum.

We had almost no knowledge of how to work with students from countries other than Mexico or Vietnam. We made lots and lots of mistakes, but we knew that we had to provide authentic reasons for these students, mostly from Burma and Africa, to engage in reading and writing or we would lose them to the killing floor of our local slaughterhouse where they could make up to $15 an hour with not much language skill.

We decided to use their visual literacy to build a bridge to written words. So, we began with drawings. I used a prompt that first day that I’ve used my entire career: “Draw something you’ll never forget.”

Almost always, I get drawings about roller coasters and puppies and maybe one or two about when a beloved grandparent passes away. I was totally unprepared for my refugee students drawings. They drew very detailed scenes of small huts on fire, of beatings, of leaving family members behind a razor-wire fence – and most disturbingly, of small children being bayoneted by soldiers.

Those same students, with help, created digital narratives of their experiences that used images and music to communicate their experience in an authentic way that has engaged every audience who has seen them.

This experience was an epiphany to me about using all students’ inherent visual literacy as a bridge to textual literacy. Each student, in my experience, regardless of their cognitive or language ability, comes with a built-in literacy that they are already using to produce, consume and make meaning of their world.

This particular lesson, a paired reading of the Oscar-nominated short film, Madame Tutli-Putli with T. Coraghessan Boyle’s flash fiction story, The Hit Man, has evolved over five years. My students co-created it with me, as we identified the most interesting texts and questions.

I’ve always been a T.C. Boyle fan and I love film, so they seemed to go together for me. The Hit Man is particularly appealing to high school students because it takes the idea of an assassin –  so popular that a video game series is built around the idea (i.e. Assassin’s Creed) –  and uses it to define Death as a mercenary sociopath. The film is interesting  because it examines the disappearance of everyone on a train, much like the “Left Behind” or other Rapture-type genres, but without any religious overtones.

This is the background for the lesson, “Building Bridges With Visual Literacy,” that  I share in the anthology The Best Lesson Series: Literature. I am humbled to be in the company of the 14 master teachers who co-author the book edited by Brian Sztabnik, and  I’m so proud of this work because we all, as Brian said, put our hearts into the book. It represents the best of our teaching and the work that’s been most meaningful to our students. It’s my hope that other teachers find it useful – not only as a guide – but as a spur to their own creativity and innovative thinking.
A free sample & ordering information is here



Image credits: Brian Sztabnik


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