Friday, November 10, 2017

Not an Oxymoron: Visual Learning in ELA

Last month my husband and I were at a conference for international school leaders in East Asia (EARCOS). 

“Use a visual whenever you can!” 

A presenter at a seminar strove to impress on a roomful of educators “Brutal Facts about Learning.” She covered 13 truths about learning that cognitive science, neuroscience, and neuropsychology have established in the last 30 years—which schools still don’t consistently implement. One of those truths is that a visual always strengthens learning.

Fast forward two weeks, and I’m back in my high school English classroom. Half of me is wondering how, in a discipline that is all about words, I’m supposed to use visuals. The other half of me is noticing how every time I use a visual—whether it’s a graphic organizer or a Google image of a (to 15- or 16-year-olds) arcane allusion in our reading—understanding blossoms.

In 11th grade AP English, we’re reading a variety of essays, historical and contemporary, on education, in order to analyze their style and argument, and eventually to synthesize them and form our own opinions, expressed in our own style. After reading the first two essays—a contemporary one from Harper’s called “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read” and a classic Ralph Waldo Emerson excerpt from "Education"—I asked students to create a Venn diagram comparing the two pieces: the rhetorical context, the message, the style, and the effect of the style on the message. They did this individually, then in table groups of three or four, and then as a class. (I just asked them to draw a diagram in their notebooks, and I collected input from all the groups in one I made on the whiteboard. I didn’t take a photo of the whiteboard, so I recreated the form, at least, on paper.) Given how very different the two articles initially seemed, I think we were all startled that we came up with some intriguing similarities--and saw very clearly what made the styles so different.

See this blog for a description of this activity.
After the 11th graders had read two more essays—James Baldwin’s “A Talk to Teachers” from 1963 and Kyoko Mori’s 1999 comparison of Japanese and American education—we had a synthesizing discussion, for which I gave students a graphic organizer. It was a great discussion, in which students commented that while all the writers had very different styles, they seemed to hold a similar purpose for education—giving children the tools to succeed in society. They just differed in their definition of success, of the tools needed, and of the process for giving children those tools. The “wonder” many students left with is how other cultures define success, the necessary tools, and the process for giving them to children. 

Visuals in 10th grade this week looked a little different. We’re reading the Holocaust memoir Night, so there are a lot of unfamiliar terms—from “Hasidic” to “yellow star.” In these days of Google Images and Chrome Cast (or whatever projector technology your school uses), it is so simple to skip the thousand words and show the picture. (I did that in 11th grade, too, when James Baldwin refers to Gary Cooper: “That’s how the country was settled. Not by Gary Cooper. Yet we have a whole race of people, a whole republic, who believe the myths to the point where even today they select political representatives, as far as I can tell, by how closely they resemble Gary Cooper.” For all the shortfalls of the internet, here’s a big thank you to Wikipedia and Google Image. For a blog I wrote for NCTE on the subject, see here.)

Here’s the real clincher: It’s not just how kids learn. It’s how adults learn, too. This week, at the sixth (and second-to-last) meeting of 11 teaching colleagues to discuss the book How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms, I created a visual of the mental construct the book has been using, but only describing in words. I, too, had described it with words and air gestures. I’d drawn a diagram at another seminar at that conference two weeks ago. It was firm in my mind. But when I recreated in with Post-it notes in the grid of the linoleum squares of my living room floor, at least two adults present said, "Oh! I see!"
The yellow Post-it notes are the ones I used at the book discussion, but when I put them on the floor for a photo, they were too tiny to read. So I recreated the grid on a paper. You can see the top three Post-its on the floor in the photo below.

So here’s my commitment to my students (and teachers): I am on safari for any and all graphic organizers or visual representations that will support learning. 

What visuals do you use to help students learn? What additional visuals can you use? How can you visually represent one thing that you have, until now, only verbally described?

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