Visual Literacy and Disney Magic

Last week, I had the absolute pleasure of spending time in Disneyland with my family, and before I left, one of my friends and colleagues, a high school English teacher that I have known for years, jibed me a little on Facebook and encouraged me to look for plenty of “real texts” to write about while I was there.

Challenge accepted.

You might wonder how anyone could find any substantive texts in The Happiest Place on Earth, but because of the genius of the Imagineers, they’re everywhere you look. Still don’t believe me?

You only have to go as far as Peter Pan’s Flight, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, The Pirates of the Caribbean, or any other similar Disney adventure to see what I’m talking about. These rides are texts. Sure, they may not have many (or any) words, but they certainly tell stories, and as riders (or readers), we have to make meaning from the visual images. Of course, I really can’t go anywhere without making some connection to my work, so this idea of visual literacy was continually percolating in my mind all week, and it got me thinking about one of my favorite genres: Infographics.

Infographics have been around since prehistoric times. I mean, hey, what do you think cave drawings were? But now, with the use of these images in popular online news sources and with the easy sharing features of social media sites, modern infographics are everywhere.

I have a few good sources for Infographics, but my absolute favorite is Good Magazine. It was in this magazine that I first noticed these visuals, and I’ve been fascinated by them ever since.

Check out this one about reading:

Reading for the Future, Good Magazine

At first glance, it’s definitely appealing to look at, but it becomes even more sophisticated when you notice what this infographic includes. In it are compelling statistics, researched facts, possible solutions, powerful graphics, and complementary verbal and visual elements. The design takes the reader from one segment to the next: from the importance of looking at third grade reading levels, to the link to high school graduation, to the effect of poverty, and finally to some potential solutions. This logical organization is accomplished through visual elements, rather than paragraph structure. But it’s still an organizational scheme–and quite a powerful and sophisticated one at that.

If you want to look at sophisticated organization in these visual elements, take a look at this infographic about world hunger:

Can We Feed 7 Billion People? Good Magazine

Look at how it begins. Underneath the title, the infographic is set up in a very clear two-column compare/contrast organizational scheme with the U.S. on one side and developing countries on the other. Within the individual columns, the information is parallel for added impact: “the U.S. wastes 40% of their food” vs. “developing countries lose 40% of their food.” The organizational scheme continues, as information about waste in the United State is on the left, and information about loss in developing countries is on the right. Like the reading infographic, this one also includes powerful statistics and researched facts. Additionally, the graphic ends with some ideas about what people can do in order to remedy this concerning problem.

These examples make me think about writing standard 6 in the Common Core State Standards for ninth and tenth grade ELA: “Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products, taking advantage of technology’s capacity to link to other information and to display information flexibly and dynamically.” The infographic is certainly a shared writing product, and technological tools could definitely make it feasible to create these types of visuals in which information is presented “flexibly and dynamically.”

Think also about writing standard 9 for grades nine and ten: “Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question) or solve a problem; narrow or broaden the inquiry when appropriate; synthesize multiple sources on the subject, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.” Then imagine the skills that it would take to create infographics like the ones above. The amount of research and synthesis to make such complex topics so deceptively simple and easy to swallow is mind-blowing. Why couldn’t high school students demonstrate their understanding of researched topics through an infographic either in addition to–or instead of–a research paper (I’m not suggesting at all, however, that students shouldn’t write about their research. They should. There just might be other ways to demonstrate these skills as well).

If we want students to research questions that are self-generated (and we know that providing choice is a powerful motivator for people), consider this infographic:

Star Wars vs. Star Trek, Daily Infographic

Is this an Earth-shattering (no pun intended) topic? Probably not. But is it interesting and well-researched? Yes. Think about the level of thought and research the author of this image had to consider. I mean, to take into consideration the amount of Facebook likes and Twitter followers in determining a franchise’s success is kind of genius. Could a kid do this if provided examples like these? Of course.

If we’re going to think about a) growing writers and b) providing relevant examples of “real-world” texts, using these types of tools (and asking students to produce this type of work) could be one way to get us there. Our kids are Twenty-first Century citizens, and when they are bombarded by an absolute firestorm of data (much of it in visual form) on an almost daily basis, we are doing them a disservice if we don’t teach them to critically read and produce these kinds of texts. If this element is absent from our curriculum, they are missing out on one avenue for their voices to be heard.

I know these infographics are a far cry from the Haunted Mansion, but they do remind us that not all information comes to us in neatly typed black and white packages of text. Sometimes, the way that our minds fill in the blanks is the most powerful part of the story.


Possible Units: Infographics could be worked into units on research, or they could be woven into thematic units, based on the topic. Want to teach a unit using the definition of education as a driving force? Maybe use some infographics about that topic to supplement other readings.

Ways to Use Infographics: They could be used for close reading, as sources for research projects, or even as mentor texts to do some infographic-composing.

What ideas do you have? Share in the comments.



Book Reviews: Not Just an Amazon Thing

It’s funny how, when you write, your mind takes you on unexpected paths. When I set out to write (or, rather, resurrect) this blog, I really had no intention of starting with genres that encourage students to write about literature. To be honest, though, after writing my previous post about literary analysis, I am still really inspired about this notion of initiating students into communities of literacy. And writing about literature is one way for students to get access to the club.

I’ve also been thinking about giving students opportunities to create communities of literacy in their own classrooms too, and in doing that, I’ve been exploring the question of ways students can enter their voice into the world of literary criticism but also gather their peers around authentic reading and writing. And that got me thinking about book reviews.

No, I don’t mean book reviews a la Amazon or Goodreads, though those might be effective entry points into this world. What I’m talking about are meaty, interesting book reviews published in places like Harper’s, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Kirkus Reviews, or even lesser known sites like BookPage.

First, let’s talk writing. You might think book reviews wouldn’t provide enough substance to really push kids to write seriously about literature. If that’s the case, think again. You only need to take a peek at a book review like “Love for Sale,” by Francine Prose about the book Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry (Leanne Shapton) to change your mind. It is thoughtful and interesting, and most importantly, actually makes me want to read the book.

But if you think about what Prose did as a writer, then the intellectual demand and sophistication of writing something like this Harper’s review definitely puts this particular genre on my radar for “things that high school kids should write.”

Take the first paragraph, for example. She begins the review by mentioning a situation that has universal appeal: the fact that, as children, most of us probably wondered if our toys or possessions became animated when we slept at night. And if you question that as a universal assumption, then look no further than the Toy Story franchise.

Of course, this is the first sophisticated move she makes as a critic and writer, because as you read the rest of her twenty-three paragraphs (incidentally, much longer than 5), you realize that this opening paragraph connects seamlessly with her central observations about Shapton’s work. She moves into the second paragraph, which introduces the central tension: as we age, we tend to emotionally detach ourselves from these objects…sometimes. Then again, sometimes these objects are so sentimental that they take hold of us. Permanently and ruthlessly.

After two paragraphs of introductory material, Prose gets to the book. She first talks about the form–an “imitation of the auction catalogues that often accompany the sale of an estate or private collection,” and in this discussion, she describes how Shapton’s text is like other auction catalogues and even describes her favorite example of the genre: a volume from 1977 filled with skulls and other emblems of death. If you think about this work as a writer, Prose would have had to read other examples of the auction catalogue (and deeply understand the features of this genre) in order to compare Shapton’s work to them. And if we think about teaching our students to do this work (know what else to read in order to connect to books they are already reading), it helps us understand the various levels of rigor that writing a good book review–one that is like real book reviews–incorporates.

She takes a quick one-paragraph detour to discuss why it is the form–and not the content–that makes this text fresh, original, and engaging. This means that, as a reader, Prose needed to have read many examples of love-and-lost stories to make this assertion in the first place.

Once Prose begins to discuss both the content and the style of Shapton’s book, she organizes her review to follow Important Artifacts chronologically–through the text and, thus, through the relationship of the two main characters. As she does this work throughout 14 paragraphs, she carefully analyzes the artifacts (her evidence) and what they say about the relationship (her analysis).

Finally, we get to the central idea of the text in paragraph 20: “The seriousness beneath the joke is that these scraps of paper, used clothes, and borderline garbage were formerly objects of incalculable worth; indeed, they once meant everything to this fictional couple.” But the analysis doesn’t stop here. Prose not only discusses this important idea, but also talks about how the form of Shapton’s book allows her to explore multilayered ideas, not just the importance of these items to the couple, but also the importance of “modern love, city life, a time and a place, a social class, a milieu, and a relationship to objects that both reflects and transcends the specificities of all of the above.”

At the very end, Prose makes a connection to our lives, and we return to the universality of the opening paragraph. And that is exactly where Prose leaves us. Where we began.

Certainly, this is a masterful example by a true professional, but if we provide models like this for our students–and then teach them how to write reviews like this–imagine what would be possible for them. And there are examples of this type of writing all over the Internet. BookPage is actually a very accessible and interesting place to find these reviews, though none of them are quite as deep as the examples you’ll find in Harper’s.

Now let’s think about how these reviews might launch our kids into the community of literacy. Students can write to be a part of a larger conversation, but they can also write to share their deepest thoughts about books with their friends, and in high school, where social standing seems to be everything, this might even be the most important reason for teens to write reviews. Imagine asking students to write reviews and then publishing them in the classroom, on a class blog, or even, yes, on Amazon or Goodreads. Imagine participating in an authentic community of literacy not only outside of the classroom, but also in it, where students are thinking and writing about what they read and sharing it with others. Now there’s an authentic model of literacy.


Genre: Book reviews

Possible Essential Questions:

What’s [author’s] part in the conversation about literature? What’s my part?

What is good writing?

Possible Units:

I could see book reviews being done anytime students have read independently. Imagine doing lit circles (or independent reading) and then teaching students how to do book reviews to analyze their books and persuade others to read them

I could also see doing a book review genre study–maybe after engaging in some deep reading work around novels

It seems that book reviews could become an ongoing ritual in the classroom, with students writing them after many books they read and then publishing them in a central location that all of the kids could access (classroom, school library, class website or blog…imagine the possibilities)

Ways You Might Use This Type of Text

As mentor texts for this genre

As another way of looking at literary criticism

Other Instructional Materials or Experiences That Might Support Students’ Writing in This Genre

Background information about the author, time period, and/or book that students are reading (students could research this themselves once they know how to research effectively–or this research could be embedded into the instruction about book reviews)

Other examples of the genre that students are reviewing

Other examples of similar stories that students are reviewing

Other works by the same author


The Genre That Isn’t

I spent the better part of last week in high school English Language Arts classrooms, working and learning with teachers who want to refine their craft. It was really interesting for so many reasons, but mostly because in all of the classrooms, students were working on either writing a “literary response” essay or, in many cases, listening to the teacher’s interpretation about the literature students were reading (Lord of the Flies, Of Mice and Men, the Odyssey…you know, the usual) in preparation to write a literary response essay.

These well-meaning and well-intentioned teachers who truly care about their kidsLit were primarily concerned that students would do this work so that they would be “ready for English [insert next grade level here].” I get that. I mean, as teachers, we always want to make sure that our students can be successful once they move into the next grade. We never want our students to be barely treading water when they go to Mr./Mrs. X’s class.

But is that all? If we follow that logic, then does that mean the only teacher preparing students for whatever lies beyond high school is the senior year English teacher? Uh oh.

I’m sure we can all agree that one year of college (or life) preparation doesn’t even seem to scratch the surface.

So anyway, all of that got me thinking. What is the purpose of this “literary response essay”? In the writing project community, there’s even some debate as to whether or not it’s a real genre (I’m starting to doubt its legitimacy as a stand-alone genre, to be honest). Certainly, the purpose is for the student to share his or her learning about a text. But is that all? Are we really asking students to write this type of essay, which seems to show up only in school for an audience of exactly one, simply so they can show how much they know about a book we’ve told them to read? I can’t imagine that any of us would be satisfied with that as an end goal. In the grand scheme of things, it seems a little pointless even.

Of course, as I think about Common Core, I think that we all need to start thinking about the idea of authentic tasks, purposes, and audiences. If we are truly going to prepare students for college, career, and citizenship, our students need to know how to enter into a larger writing community and to write real pieces that people want to read, real pieces that they want people to read. The literary response essay, while it can serve an important purpose for the assessment of a student’s reading skills, isn’t the only way students can (or probably should) write about literature.

As I was thinking about this “school-only” genre, I wanted to discover how this type of writing (about things we read) shows up in authentic writing communities. Apparently, there are all these critics running around, writing for publications like The New York Times, The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, and a few other intelligent magazines. In fact, there are even awards for these people. And kind of a cult following too. Weird, right?

Anyway, knowing that my vision for this blog is to share my thoughts about genres and mentor texts that could be embedded into high school classrooms, while I was searching for the “real” version of literary response essays, I was also reminded about some beautiful words in Appendix A of the Common Core. Yes, I did just say the words beautiful and Common Core in the same sentence. That actually happens a lot with me. I know. Weird. Again.

But I want to share a bit of this beauty with you. Just humor me.

“Skilled writers many times use a blend of these three text types to accomplish their purposes. For example, The Longitude Prize…in Appendix B, embeds narrative elements within a largely expository structure. Effective student writing can also cross the boundaries of type, as does the grade 12 student sample “Fact vs. Fiction” and All the Grey Space In Between” found in Appendix C (Appendix A, p. 24).

Look at that what this says. Skilled writers actually blend the text types (narrative, informational/explanatory, and argument) to accomplish a purpose. Holy cow. Now that’s sophisticated. But isn’t it true? When I read that line, I think about a piece like George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” a piece which is clearly narrative but makes a very profound argument and social commentary. More about that genre in a future post.

Back to literary analysis.

So like I said, I was really curious about where I could find examples of ways that actual writers create this type of writing in an effort to understand why else our students might want to write in this way (and to maybe see how some of these text types blend together in order to make a literary power smoothie of sorts).

Enter “Page-Turner” in The New Yorker. The tagline on this regular blog reads, “Criticism, contention, and conversation about books that matter.”

When I read that tagline, it hit me. That’s exactly why we should teach students to write about text–so that they can enter into the conversation, so that they can be legitimate members of the literacy community. There are so many particularly rich examples of text in this segment of The New Yorker (even ones teachers could use as mentor texts in high school classrooms).

Take for example one piece called “Sylvia Plath’s Joy.” In this article, the author, Dan Chiasson, writes about Plath’s well-known collection of poems, Ariel.

He begins the article by briefly sharing the story of Plath’s suicide (a strange beginning to an article that seems to be about her joy–and, of course, one that comes together at the end) and then draws a dark connection between her attention to detail in preparing her own death and preparing her final manuscript. We also learn from an embedded exclamation by Robert Lowell that this poetry was some good shit.

Chiasson continues to discuss this final manuscript–Ariel–as a revelation and provides his initial take on the work, that “it is the great book of earliest morning.” He then includes the text of its title poem and discusses how Plath revamped a popular take on dawn. In three short paragraphs (of the eight total paragraphs–not 5–in the piece), Chiasson relates a third-person narrative, presents an argument about her poetry, and explains some historical information about the circumstances surrounding the publication of Plath’s final volume. Later in the post, Chiasson even tells a brief personal anecdote that connects to another one of Plath’s poems.

All three text types. In one piece. Not to mention, it is a beautifully crafted piece of writing in its own right and could provide a powerful instructional tool for reading or writing (or both) in a high school classroom. As Chiasson continues, he does end the piece with his own original conclusion about Plath and her poetry. Now that’s literary analysis.

Of course, that’s not the only example of this type of writing. Other interesting pieces in this blog include “Call of the Wild: The Connection between Shakespeare and Sendak” and “John Donne’s Erotica” (ok, this last one probably isn’t the best for a high school class, but it’s an interesting read and will give you even more sense of this particular genre). At any rate, you can browse the “Page Turner” section of the New Yorker website and find a treasure trove of examples.

I feel like this post might pinch a little. As an English major myself (and former high school ELA teacher), I really did have minor heart palpitations when writing these words. But if we’re really going to teach our students how to be members of a larger writing community (which is, consequently, much bigger than preparing them for college and career), and if we are going to give them the tools to be part of this conversation, then we need to look beyond the five paragraphs of the literary analysis essay. I’m not saying don’t ever ask kids to write one. I’m just saying that our world is much bigger than that.


Genre: Literary Criticism (based in an author study)

Possible Essential Questions:

How does our work reflect our identity? How does our work create our identity?

Who is [name of person], and how do we know?

What’s [author’s] part in the conversation about literature? What’s my part?

Possible Units: These texts could be part of an author study unit or a unit on literary criticism

Ways You Might Use These Texts:

Mentor texts for this type of writing

Texts to provide alternate viewpoints about popular authors/texts

Other Instructional Materials That Might Support Students’ Writing in This Genre

Background information about the author (both primary and secondary sources)

An opportunity to read multiple examples of an author’s works

Opportunities to read other works that might connect to this author