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.

Postscript

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.

 

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