Closer Readings Commentary

Encouraging Visual Literacy: Tips and Tools from Internet@Schools

If students aren’t taught the language of sound and images, shouldn’t they be considered as illiterate as if they left college without being able to read or write? —George Lucas, film director

Each year at the end of April as the cherry trees come into bloom, librarians of all stripes converge on Washington, D.C., for the annual spring event known as Computers in Libraries. Billed as “the bleeding edge” conference for the library community, this year continued a 30-year tradition of looking at emerging technologies and sharing new insights from information industry leaders.

Wending my way through the conference track devoted to K–12 librarianship, Internet@Schools, it was not hard to pick up a common thread running through many sessions—visual literacy and the importance of promoting it in schools.

Merriam Webster’s defines visual literacy as “the ability to recognize and understand ideas conveyed through visible actions or images (as pictures),” which allows for much latitude in creative applications for schools.

Here’s a brief run-down of helpful advice and digital resources for integrating visual literacy into the classroom gleaned in a few of the Internet@Schools sessions.

(Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.)

A Thousand Voices: The Power of Storytelling

Storytelling is a natural part of our lives. Narratives often are enhanced or told entirely through illustrations, photographic images, and video. This session leader referenced NEH-funded Mission US as a prime example for generating visually rich story content in the digital realm. She shared a number of interactive tools, websites, and contests by national organizations that involve integrating technology in innovative ways to help students tell their stories using visual media:

The session leader went on to recommend the following digital tools to assist students in the production of original digital creations:

Note This! Creating and Sharing Information with Sketch Notes

Sketch noting or visual note taking is doodling with a purpose. They are a creative alternative to the conventional notetaking process. Unlike texts, sketch notes are rarely linear in structure. They actively engage the right side of the brain as well as the left.

Why do it?

  • Traditional handwritten notes are not all that interesting. Sketch noting opens up the creative side and can keep you engaged in the lecture;
  • Pictures are important to memory. Sketch noting can help improve memory by association;
  • Writing by hand and drawing offers additional benefits such as reinforcing new concepts as opposed to simply typing notes on a keyboard verbatim;
  • Sketch noting is compatible with our 21st-century visual environment—social networks, You Tube, etc.
  • Sketch noting can get you out of trouble for doodling!

There is nothing new here—or is there? Sketch noters have been around since Leonardo da Vinci. Notable examples can be found across the spectrum of professions from artists to American presidents. A number of contemporary authors are writing on the current doodler revolution (i.e., Mike Rhode’s Sketchnote Handbooks and Sunni Brown’s The Doodle Revolution: Unlock the Power to Think Differently.)

Exercise your inner doodler with handbooks such as The Art of Zentangle and Chalk Talks. Adult coloring books channel this impulse into artistry and are being touted as a way to meditate and de-stress. Works such as the Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Coloring Book are all the rage in Europe right now and are quickly catching on in the U.S.

Literacies for Life: Teaching Literacies across Formats and Platforms

This session was led by a veteran school librarian and a technology coordinator who shared their experience of joining their departments together. They offered a number of tips that spoke to the value of fostering 21st century literacies (information, media, technological, as well as visual) to help students make sense of their world. Many of these were takeaways from their jointly taught freshman course curriculum, which is broken into four distinct units over the course of a full semester. Visual literacy plays a significant part in their 4th unit of study: “How do you synthesize information?”

Both session leaders highly recommended Buffy Hamilton, the Unquiet Librarian, and the presentations she hosts on her website, which contain a ton of information on how to help students synthesize information. The leaders emphasized the importance of using visuals to reinforce the emotional impact of student presentations and concluded with a few general tips on how to help students incorporate design fundamentals into their slide show productions:

  • Build a vocabulary of how to think visually
  • Follow the rule of thirds and provide for enough white space  
  • Use big images to establish some emotional weight
  • Drop the traditional power point templates
  • Manage slide content (size is important)
  • Remember less is more (25 words or less on a slide)

The AASL standard skills for the 21st-century learner encourage school librarians to “use the writing process, media and visual literacy, and technology skills to create products that express new understandings.” These tips and tools from Internet@Schools will help you guide students to become creative producers of meaningful notes, vivid stories, and dynamic visual presentations.