Taylor Swift makes a regular appearance in my classroom. As does Katy Perry.

Alas, it is only through their music videos. I’ll be honest, I am an unironic T-Swizzle fan despite the fact I’m turning 30 in a few months.

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I have found that analyzing visuals is one of the best ways to help students gain the basic skills of analysis. Our students are far superior with their selfie game. They know the right angles and filters to achieve their desired effects on Instagram. Unintentionally, they already understand many elements of visual analysis.

Rather than jumping into rhetorical analysis and close reading of written texts, I start my year by teaching analysis through visuals. We discuss elements of visual design such as focal points, object placement, color usage, color contrast, symbolism, font, and mood. After working through analyzing some advertisements, we move to the fun part— music videos.

My go to visual analysis strategy comes from Kelly Gallagher’s Write Like This. I have them fold a paper in half and label the columns “What I see” and “What it means”. In the “What I see” column, students write down all their observations about the piece. For instance, they may write what the characters are wearing, what colors are used, or objects they think may be symbolic.

After we view the image or video at least twice, students write down what they think the artist “means”. Sometimes I have them write out what each of their observations “means”, and other times I have them develop a simple 2-3 sentence claim statement about the overall argument of the piece. This essentially becomes a visual double entry note. We use this any time we analyze a visual—whether it is a famous painting or Taylor Swift’s newest hit.

The strategy is simple, but the insightful discussion that comes after the viewing is beautiful. We’ll generally talk at tables for a few minutes about observations, and then move to a whole class discussion.

I’ve also done an extension of this activity in my AP classes. After several days of intense visual analysis and discussion, students find and analyze their own “Visual artifact”. This artifact can be a music video, a clip from a movie, or a print advertisement. They complete a short rhetorical analysis of the artifact and then present it to the class. This year when I do the activity, I may have the students do this presentation through flip grid to save time.

Here are some of my favorite music videos for visual analysis. A few of them are treasures that I discovered through my student presentations of their visual artifact. I suggest that you preview these videos before showing to your students. Some are fine for any age, but a few would be better used in more mature student groups.

Additionally, check out the TeachArgument channel on YouTube. This organization (probably a teacher!) provides rhetorical analysis of many new music videos and advertisements.

“Roar” by Katy Perry: My go-to video for four years because of the wealth of interesting images and relatively simple argument for incoming sophomores.

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  • Look for: transformation of character, mirror/reflection imagery, animal imagery
  • Caution: Katy Perry’s transformation eventually results in less clothing than the beginning. It has never been an issue in my classes, but very immature audiences might not handle this well. Secondary caution: This song will get stuck in your brain, and it is annoying after hearing it 10 times in one day.

 

“Lost in the World Like Me” by Moby & the Void Pacific Choir: This year’s go-to for 10th grade analysis. Interesting visual argument about our obsession with our phones

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  • Look for: pop culture references, effect of cartoon imagery, color usage
  • Caution: depicts a cartoon character jumping off a building to commit suicide, depiction of needles.

“Mirrors” by Justin Timberlake: Depicts an elderly couple looking back on their romance after one passes away.

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  • Look for: significance of mirror imagery, effect of dance on argument, overall story
  • Caution: depictions of alcohol, long video

“Praying” by Keisha: Powerful video of recovery from a toxic relationship.

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  • Look for: tons of symbolism, color usage, religious imagery, significance of lyrics
  • Caution: consider offering trigger warning. Keisha alludes to being raped and experiencing depression.

“Save Rock and Roll” by Fallout Boy ft Elton John: One of my absolute favorites to analyze, though potentially too mature for 9th/10th

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  • Look for: Again, tons of symbolism, religious imagery, light/darkness, interesting story-line
  • Caution: F-Bomb dropped at 2:02, graphic violence and depiction of needles

 

WVCTE is wondering, what do you do to teach visual analysis? Can you think of other great music videos or film clips that would work well for this assignment? Reach out to us on Facebook or on twitter @wvcte.

 

Jeni Gearhart is a member of the WVCTE Executive committee and has been teaching at Hedgesville High School in Berkeley County for the past 7 years. She is a graduate of Grove City College in Western Pennsylvania. Though not a WV native, she loves to call this place her home, especially since recently becoming a first-time homeowner. Currently she teaches AP English Language and 10th grade Honors. Jeni loves books and coffee and exploring new places. If given a million dollars, it would probably be spent buying more books, or perhaps a pet unicorn. 

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