By Jeni Gearhart

I like color (and coloring books but that is beside the point). My classroom is covered in color from student projects. On occasion, my teaching wardrobe is too colorful.
I say all of this because in the last few years, I have discovered the importance of visual argument in the classroom. Much of this new love of visual has come from AP workshops and creative teacher friends that I follow on Twitter.

So, why is this important?

If we use visuals well, it can become more than making a project “pretty”. It should be a part of the argument itself. In an increasingly visual society, students should be learning how to use the medium well (and understand how others are using it to influence them).
Here are two things that I used this year that worked well. The first is low tech (hello art supplies!). The second is high tech but can be managed with art supplies if computers are inaccessible.

Literary Fever Chart

I originally read about this strategy in Write Like This by Kelly Gallagher (side note: if you haven’t read this book, find it now. His books are gold mines of great ideas). Essentially, a fever chart is a quote analysis that morphs into an analysis of a large theme in a text. It takes its original concept from medical fever charts documenting an individual’s changes in body temperature. For our purposes, it charts a character’s development. I used this in both my AP Language class and my sophomore class this year. In both cases, the students really got into it.
This strategy works best to analyze the development of a theme over the course of a story, specifically in relation to an individual character. In my lesson from The Scarlet Letter, students chose one of the main characters (Hester, Dimmesdale, or Chillingworth) and charted the character’s move toward (or attitude towards) redemption (good) and damnation (evil).

Here are the basic instructions:

  • Choose 7 quotes that illustrate significant moves towards either side.
  • Chart the quotes where you think they fit on your fever chart
  • On separate piece of paper or on the back of your chart:
    • Explain each of the quotes and what shows about their attitudes. Why does it signify a move towards redemption/damnation

To make this more fun (let’s be honest, even AP kids love to play with the art supplies), I added a visual element to the assignment. They had to create an “intentional visual argument”. Using color and symbols the students had to show the theme (good and evil) on their chart. Below are a couple of the examples that I managed to photograph.

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We did this over the course of a few days at the end of the novel, but I think it would be even better to introduce at the beginning of the novel and carry through. Variations could involve tracking the use of a particular symbol or even a particular kind of word. I’ve also had students chart multiple characters on the same chart.Why I like this:

  • This activity synthesizes a lot of the standards: understanding of character, understanding of theme, citing textual evidence (AKA: it makes them use their brain).
  • Visual argument: Students have to be able to justify not just how the quote relates to the theme, but WHY they placed it on different parts of the chart. Why does one of Hester’s choices show a darker motivation than another similar action?
  • It stimulated strong text based discussion. It is music to an English teacher’s ears!

Infographics

Most simply, an infographic is a visual image such as a chart or diagram used to represent information or data. They use text combined with symbols and intentional color/sizing. This has become a pretty prevalent visual medium. Here is an example if you’re not sure what I’m talking about.

I first started thinking about ways to use infographics after reading this article a couple of years ago. I experimented with some low tech options and then discovered some great websites that make this project stand out. I wanted the infographics to be more than a poster project. They had to create a visual argument. As such, I have a few very basic requirements when we create infographics:

  • Fewer than 200 words (I may challenge students to go lower than this next year)
  • Visual connections between topics (ex: arrows)
  • Intentional use of color (in font, background, images)
  • At least 4 visuals (pictures) illustrating points

Read more about my students’ infographics after the jump…

Categories: Blog

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