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  • Introducing Visual Literacy
    By Dr. Mikki Shaw

    Grade Level: 7 - 10

    Language Arts classes teach students to be intelligent consumers of written texts, to read closely, understand and respond to the written word. Yet our students "consume" far more visual than written images, and far more of their information is gathered through television, video and film than though books. Recent studies indicate that children in grades 7 - 12 watch approximately 28 hours of television a week. Do we have students who read that much? This lesson plan introduces students to the idea that visual images can be read and interpreted, and that they can become literate in media as well as text. It is meant to be an introduction to approaching visual literacy, either as a separate unit of study or as an ongoing perspective on films and images viewed throughout the school year.


    • Students will begin to look at visual imagery as a series of choices made by writers, directors, actors, editors, and to consider how visual images differ in their ability to communicate ideas and emotions to an audience.
    • Students will begin to look critically at media, and to develop their own standards by which to judge, discuss and analyze film, TV, video.
    • Students will begin to see media as a visual art and as an alternative to texts as a method of communicating themes and ideas.
    • Students will recognize Visual Literacy as a skill that can be used to understand and interpret the images that surround them.

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    Estimated Time

    Approximately 1 week

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    Necessary Materials

  • TV monitor and VCR
  • Blackboard and/or newsprint
  • Film clips, if possible including one from a silent film

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  • Teaching Procedure

    Activity 1: Who Watches What?

    1. Ask students what TV shows they watch and list on board. (Keep the list for Activity 2.)

    2. Ask students to work in small groups to create categories and divide the shows into categories according to whom they are meant to appeal. Younger students may need help creating categories.

    3. Discuss with the students how they can tell. Students will begin to articulate that certain characters, topics, dress, locations, etc. are designed to appeal to children, teenagers or adults. Discuss why these categories are generally effective. Ask students if there are any TV shows they watch that are not specifically meant to appeal to their age group and why.

    4. Again in small groups, ask students to "create" a TV show, give it a name, a set of regular characters and a general plot line. Have a specific audience in mind. Think about what products might be good sponsors for the show. When would this show air? Have the groups introduce their shows to the class and see if the class can identify the intended audience.
    Activity 2: The Reality Game

    1. In small groups or as a class, ask students to go back to the lists they made of the TV shows they watch, and group the shows according to category- drama, adventure, sci fi, comedy and other general categories they can create. Within those categories, ask students to analyze what the shows may have in common.

      • Look for stereotypical characters. For instance: do comedy shows tend to have a "fall guy?" What do the female characters have in common?

      • Are there plot devices that repeat themselves in certain categories? Why might that be so?

    2. List and discuss some of the conventions that are common in each category.

    3. Choose a familiar show in each category and analyze its "Reality Quotient" on a scale of 1 - 10. Are these shows mostly realistic? Do people really act, dress, behave the way people do on these TV shows?

    4. Begin to list some reasons why TV shows deliberately choose to portray reality in a particular way rather than realistically. Questions may include

      • Why do people find it appealing to see life portrayed in this manner?

      • Why do audiences find violence appealing?

      • Do you think watching violence on TV, movies and video games has an affect on behavior? This is a list that can remain in the classroom and be added to over a period of time as students see film and TV in and out of class.
    Activity 3: Communicating Choices Visually

    1. DW Griffith, who is considered to be the father of modern filmmaking, once said, "The task I am trying to achieve is to make you see." What might he have meant? Griffith worked only with silent black and white film. What techniques were available to him to "make us see."

    2. If possible, show a short dramatic except from an old black and white film, and discuss the techniques available to silent filmmakers. (I generally choose to mute the sound so students can talk though the excerpt.) Students will point out lighting, camera movement, melodramatic gestures, movements and acting. Teacher may allow students to script the lines as they might be spoken if there were sound. Show several other short film clips of dramatic moments and discuss filmmaking decisions.

    3. The teacher introduces the following film scenario: (With older students, the teacher may want to introduce some basic film terminology: establishing shot, tracking shot, close-up, low and high angle, cut.)

      • A crowded math class, 30 plus students, with the desks arranged in traditional rows and the teacher sitting behind a desk up front. The students are hard at work on a difficult math test.

    4. Ask students how the camera can let us know that the text is very difficult. (Students may be fidgeting, tapping, clenching fists, making faces, etc.)

      • One student in the class has a calculator concealed in his desk and is using it to cheat. Since the teacher has not left his desk, he does not know.

    5. In real life, the teacher would be unlikely to see the calculator if he doesn't leave his desk, but in a film, the camera can let the audience know that the student is cheating. How? How can the camera let the audience know that the student is cheating but continue to conceal the fact from the teacher? How can the camera tell us that a nearby student has seen the problem? In each case, the students describe camera movements that reveal or conceal information according to the decisions made by the director and the script.

    6. Go back to DW Griffith's comment, "The task I am trying to achieve is to make you see" and have students re-examine the idea that film/video/TV can make the audience see selectively by choosing to conceal or reveal information, moving toward the realization that in the frame of a camera, the audience sees only what the director selectively chooses to show.
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    Assessment Recommendations

    Activity 1: Ask students to watch one TV show that they do not ordinarily watch and attempt to analyze the intended audience for the show based on the criteria discussed in class, including when the show airs, who the characters are, what the plot line is, and what the sponsors are selling.

    Activity 2: Ask students to choose a favorite show and, individually or in small groups, rewrite an episode so that it is realistic and believable. Students may be asked to write a summary of a few paragraphs or produce and perform a script. Analyze why or why not this would be a successful show.

    Activity 3
    1. Students write their own short scenario and script the shots in more than one way to reveal or conceal specific information from the audience or a from a character. If a video camera is available, students can actually shoot and compare the two versions.

    2. Give the students several short scenarios (i.e. a boy and girl standing in a hallway, the boy asking the girl out) and ask the student to script the dialogue and the shots making conscious decisions about point of view.

    3. View the film version of a book or story read in class and discuss the decisions made by the writer and director in terms of character portrayal, plot, adding or leaving out information, etc.
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    Extension/Adaptation Ideas

    1. Older students can easily move into an analysis of documentary and docudrama film, what each of these mean, what choices filmmakers make and what conventions they employ.

    2. Younger students can apply some of the same criteria to an analysis of advertising techniques, commercials and print ads, examining the audiences to whom they are designed to appeal, to whom they are designed to appeal and the techniques used, etc.
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    About the Author

    Dr. Mikki Shaw's diverse experience in teaching secondary school is both traditional and alternative schools, in the suburbs as well as the inner city, has reinforced a real commitment to public education and to effective staff development. Visual literacy and the possibilities of using film to teach critical thinking are among Dr. Shaw's areas of interest. Currently Dr. Shaw is a full time instructor and lecturer at Teachers College, Columbia University.

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