Topics for Visual Thinking

One of the realities of the digital world we live in is that much of the reading we do is actually taken from visual cues rather than straight text. We do our reading in digital environs which are inherently multimedia environs. Thus, the visual must be addressed as essential to the literacies we expect of students.

With that in mind, I’ve been gathering and developing visually-oriented writing assignments.

Interview Based Assignments

1. Find an older class yearbook (preferably from at least 20 years before you were born). Look through the yearbook and interview the person it belongs to. You might just sit down and flip through it together, discussing aspects of the yearbook and the memories it represents as you go. After the interview, write about what you’ve learned.
2. Study the work of a visual artist and interview that artist about his/her work. This might include painting, sculpture, photography, graphic design, or even cake decorating if the cakes are truly works of art. Write about what you learn from the artist and the art. With the artist’s permission, include photographs of the work discussed with your writing.
3. The WPA and the FSA collected many photographs of American life during the Great Depression. Study the work of one of those photographers–Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, Marion Post Wolcott, Eudora Welty, or others–and find someone who lived during the Depression to talk to about the photographs. Encourage the person you interview to share memories of that time. Write about what you learn.

Scavenger-Style Assignments

1. Go around town taking pictures of the most interesting signs and billboards you can find. Make a digital photo album or movie out of your collection, and write about any patterns, themes, or issues you observe in the collection.
2. Think of a social issue you believe is important to your own town. Take pictures that you believe tell the story of the issue. You might also video scenes that illustrate your issue. Put together a multimedia project with your finds. Write a self-reflection on the process of creating your project.
3. Go on a visual scavenger hunt of your own life looking for images that represent who you are in your home, your vehicle, your workspace, your closet, your backpack, purse, etc. Write an essay with photographs inserted about what you find out about yourself and what you think this does say to others.


1. Watch a movie with the sound turned off. Write a review of it based on visual content alone. Read about framing and filming techniques before you begin.
2. Review a website for its visual design. What visual messages are being sent? What design flaws do you see? How could a redesign clarify or enhance the content?
3. Find a collection of photographs on a particular topic, perhaps a photoessay published by a newspaper or news magazine. Write about your emotional and intellectual reactions to the photographs. Analyze and comment on the photographer’s techniques.

These are just a few to get us started. I hope others will contribute ideas.

Arts + Tech + Content Areas = Education in the Digital Age

Arts integration is a big term these days at the Mississippi Arts Commission.  Of course it would be.  Bringing the arts into all walks of life is their reason for existence.  They’ve particularly stepped up efforts recently, though, with whole schools programs and other efforts to bring arts techniques into content area instruction.  My school, JCJC, is part of these efforts.  We’re working on an arts integration grant project to create a cross-disciplinary website and offer training to instructors on arts-based instruction.

Why is the MAC pushing arts integration even at the college level?

For several reasons really.  One is a belief that the arts have the power to transform lives.  Art can inspire in ways that nothing else can, and inspired minds are open to learning.

Another is the devaluing of arts classes in the schools.  We’re bound and determined to teach our aesthetics wherever we can find students.

Perhaps the most important reason, however, is the belief that the arts have the power to help people and cultures survive and even thrive in the digital age.

We’ve heard a great deal lately about Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, and its conclusion that in a flat-world economy it takes a creative edge to succeed.  The MAC has picked Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind as the basis for its whole schools concept.  Other books like Born Digital and Grown Up Digital address the “digital natives” and how their lifestyles, thinking patterns, and professional realities are starkly different from previous generations by virtue of technological saturation.

We hear constantly that teaching methods need to change to adjust to this flat-world, right-brained, socially networked reality, but everyone struggles to figure out what that really means.  If it’s true as Daniel Pink claims that “The MFA is the new MBA,” then making arts integration part of our adjustments to the digital age is essential.  We know that much.

What does arts integration really mean then?

Arts integration means that content areas–history, science, literature, social science, math, and so on–use arts techniques–singing, composing, drawing, acting, writing, creating, and so on–as part of their teaching methods.   The idea being that art both inspires and instructs.  It turns learning into an active process.  It gives students both emotional and intellectual motivation to invest in the learning, which means the information is more likely to stick with them longterm.

What does any of this arts integration stuff really have to do with technology?

For one, we have to teach ’em where we find ’em, and these days we find ’em plugged in to iPods, Internet, gaming, and any number of highly technological activities.  If we ask a student with a multimedia mindset to sit still for hour after hour all day long of 20th century lecture-model classrooms, we’ve already lost them.  Not only that, we’ve failed to prepare them for the futures they face.  

Yes, they need to know content.  Yes, they need to learn to think their way through concepts.  Yes, the basics of reading, writing, math, and so on are more important than how well they can navigate a technology that will be obsolete in a couple of years.  However, it is equally important that we understand the differences in the way information is processed now and the way it was processed when most of us were students.

 Most of us carry around the answer to any question we might have in our pockets.  Students know this even if we don’t.  With a web-enabled phone, you are only seconds away from any fact you might need nearly any time or any place.  That makes memorization somewhat redundant.   What students need instead is the ability to adapt to new situations in a constantly changing world.

They need the vocabulary to navigate new systems.  They need to know how to make connections between disparate pieces of information in order to form reasonable conclusions.  They need to be willing to try new things, and they need to be capable of making something out of new information.  This part is important.  They need to not only be able to endure a constant bombardment of new developments; they need to be willing and able to conquer new developments.  They need to be able to create their own ideas and products in constantly changing workplace environments.  

In other words, they need imagination.  They need what art can teach them.  And they need the lessons of art in the framework of every other subject they are taught.  Imagination is not just for the weird people who take graphics design and poetry.  It’s for everyone.  If we don’t understand that, and we aren’t offering it to our students in math, history, science, and every other subject, then we haven’t given them anything they couldn’t get from Google in less time than it takes them to walk from the Coke machines to our classrooms.

That’s what arts integration is about.  It’s a challenge to ourselves to provide the kind of learning experience Google can’t.