First thoughts on EDT 6040–Visual Literacy in the classroom

Our teacher for this class, Professor Richter, is not a practicing teacher.  Nor is he an administrator-teacher, or a recently-retired one. Neither is he an un-tenured PhD. or a college administrator. No, this fourth teacher in our cohort of Educational Technology at Concordia University of Chicago is an artist first (”Art is the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way to affect the senses or emotions. It encompasses a diverse range of human activities, creations, and modes of expression…” -wikipedia “art”)

He is a photographer and professor of art at the university. And so at last we get to see educational technology at work, not  in measuring, communicating objective information, or analyzing the reasons for using digital tools.  With this course in “Visual literacy” we get to explore using the tools that are designed to affect humans educationally.

Visual literacy goes back to pre-historic cave paintings. And while not quite so old, I have had my own visually literate classrooms:  before the craze for testing began in the 2000’s, I was able to use artistic tools to good effect in my English classes, affecting (emotionally stimulating to educational effect) my students through literature, the art  at the center of traditional English classes. And not all literature is art, but all art can feed and find expression in good literature.  At its base, “literature” is any written words that convey significant information. Literature describes words selected carefully for artistic effect. So we do not revere your mother’s shopping list, but we carefully protect every last dash of Emily Dickenson. 

 What evidence is there of the Affective Effect of art ? Students would be moved to create art in response. The effectiveness of art can be determined partly by the art it provokes. Among the highlights for me were: surprising poetry, dramatic monologues, amazing tryptiches, and heartfelt songs–alll aesthetic responses to the subject.
I am from the generation of English teachers who from textbook companies like McGraw-Hill and McDougall-Litell received these treasure-sets of culture that went along with the actual text book. The “teacher’s edition” included poems and short stories, ancillary readings, audio recording libraries, and these vibrant plastic transparency sets of great works of art to display to students and allow them “aesthetic response.” It sounds quaint and totally un-testable today, but in a darkened 1980s classroom, projected from an overhead projector, these masterpieces of art could work magic on students, inspiring productive reveries and exciting reluctant writers into writing their own literature (the artistic kind).

Today’s English teacher can get better images, enjoy “mash-ups,”  and generally acess a treasure-trove of culture on the Internet that  is incalculably larger and cheaper than what was available in old teacher’s editions. But those sets of materials, which were always nicely organized around a central narrative, were great tools for the job at the time.  All that one needed in one set of binders and boxes. 

Oh, look! Here’s everything essential about American Literature. Time to carry it to my next classroom.

Over there? That is all of British Literature, in the red binders. The sets fold neatly into carrying cases. 

Now that I am considering them retrospectively, I see that part of the power in those teacher sets was their their visual literacy components.

Art education is all well, of course, but it is what communities all across America are tossing out right now as too expensive for their children, something un-affordable in public schools during this economic downturn, an add-on “frill” for productive America. Of course the arts don’t matter– they are not even tested. 

We thus foolishly cut off our future creativity and economic growth, as Eliot Eisner explains in a review of an irritating video published last year on this blog.


images sources responsibly at search.creativecommons.org

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