While many English teachers grew up reading books, our students are not. Enveloped in a world of visual stimulation, it becomes difficult for many 21st century learners to understand why there is any enjoyment in focusing on something as stagnant as writing on a page. This becomes the dilemma for the English teacher to try to get his or her students to overcome. However, as Martin Scorsese explains from his experiences as a child growing up without books, there is more to reading than only books can supply and, ultimately, some insight for teachers to take note of.
In a grade 12 English class, it was time to assess the students’ understanding of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Part one was to communicate their opinion of the author’s intent in writing such a thematically ambiguous novella. They’d considered, studied, discussed, and researched several different levels of understanding to the text, but it was time for them to take a stand and state what they knew his intent was. The class sat back in their chairs.
The teacher wasn’t finished.
Part two was to respond to any issue that the novella brought out for them. On the allegorical level, Heart of Darkness only illuminates what is happening on a worldly scale. If students were bothered by the atrocities that Conrad’s Marlow reported on, what are those atrocities in 2014? If students were bothered by the darkness of humankind’s soul, how is that apparent in today’s society? No one was to research the same topic and they had to explain how their topic tied in with the Conrad’s intent. The room became a buzz of ideas.
The teacher wasn’t finished.
As per usual the expectations were that they were to use either MLA or APA referencing, strong citations of the text, sophisticated use of vocabulary mixed into sentence variety, and construction of both an engaging introduction and spell-binding conclusion to eloquently entice and soothe the reader was built into the criteria. Everything the class had slowly been sequenced and scaffolded regarding their reading comprehension and their writing skills was included. They could choose which one of the topics they would write into an essay/blog. For the other topic? No written essay was allowed. The students sat forward in their desks.
Every student had to use the devices behind the earlier lessons they’d had on visual communication to express their point of view for the other topic. How would they, if not allowed to write an essay, communicate to their peers issues as crucial as Conrad did for his time period? After all, most of our communication is now visual. How would they entice an audience they recognized preferred visuals to text in such a way that the visual could surpass the text of an essay? They were heading off to pursue their careers, so how would they communicate to their colleagues in their respective industries? How would a mathematician communicate visually to an uninformed public about either Conrad’s intent or the issue they felt passionate about? A fashion designer? An artist? A lawyer? Communicate outside the box.
The final results?
“I know I have more to learn about writing, but I’ve never learned so much about how to use visuals”.
“I finally got an assignment where I could speak in a language I understand”.
“The novella was really difficult and I didn’t know how I was going to put all of my thoughts into an essay. This allowed me a chance to not worry so much about the writing and I could focus on what I knew about my subject instead. I knew exactly how I could present it”.
“What I liked was that the presentation is an essay. I still have to have a good intro and conclusion and I have to have all the same points I need in an essay. I actually found the essay easy to write afterwards because I could finally ‘see’ how to write”.
“Knowing how to use colour to manipulate the audience was pretty cool and the music I chose wasn’t something I would listen to but it fit my movie perfectly”.
The list could go on.
My frustrations in teaching English is not in the richness of classical literature or in the beauty of a well constructed sentence. Anyone knowing Conrad can attest to that. I’m frustrated because that seems to be where most of us stop. Yes, we want students to think critically and to see the allegorical levels of the stories and literature they read, but we tend to turn a blind eye to a world of equal beauty in the form of visual communication. Day after day of word sorts or worksheets or chapter questions only appease us into a sense of safety somehow, yet when we use mind-mapping or charts or a movie to back up a novel we’re not even scratching the surface of what visual language offers to the classroom. Reading a text and transferring the comprehended knowledge into a graphic, photograph, poster, or movie without teaching the visual language behind it could be likened to not teaching students how to write sentences, paragraphs, or essays. After all, those are just a bunch of words thrown together, right? Wrong, obviously. So it is with visuals.
We need to recognize more than the world our students live in enveloped by digital media, advertisements, commercials, and YouTube. Ignoring it won’t make it go away. Knowing how to use the devices behind visuals, teaching students how to create with them based on what they’ve read can enhance reading comprehension and writing. We have to learn how to speak the same language by respecting each language we choose. In my books, at least, it’s the first step in the right direction.
Finally, someone else has said it! We need to rethink the English curriculum not as only written formulas of sentences, paragraphs, and essays. We need to reconsider that its main goal is to teach students how to communicate. It’s not just about textual grammar rules but rules of grammar in all contexts. Just as writers use similes, metaphors, and compound complex sentences, so too do the visual artists with emphasis, repetition, colour, and lines (and much more). In light of the 21st century learner and the constant bombardment of visual stimuli, we need to help them understand that visual text as well as be able to communicate effectively in it.
At a time when we are being completely enveloped with technology, we need to ask ourselves if how we are delivering content is attaining our curricular goals. Are we teaching curriculum or are we teaching students? An interesting consideration to this topic is the following video and a worthwhile conversation to have with students in terms of how they see the world they live in. Once the class has viewed the clip and had a socratic discussion, hand out the following article on the myths of multi-tasking.
- How has the article substantiated the class discussion?
- How has the author backed up her points?
Have the students go through the article and summarize each paragraph into one sentence.
- How has the author structured her essay?
- How has the writer backed up his points?
- How has the writer structured his documentary?
- Does the filmmaker only use narration and interviews?
- What kinds of extra footage highlight the subject (called “B” roll footage)?
- When does the filmmaker use extreme close-ups (ECU)? Why?
- When does the filmmaker use long shots (LS)? Why?
- Why would it be necessary to use establishing shots (ES) even in a documentary?
- Between the article and the documentary, explain in written format how one is more effective and why.
And so it begins.
Well, in all fairness, it began a long time ago when a small child hid down in a theatre seat when the film was over so she could sneak back up again once the next showing started to watch it all over again. What else is there to do in a small town but go to the only theatre in town and get lost in the movies. Film titles that no 21st century learner has ever heard of: Jesus Christ Superstar, Kelly’s Heroes, Lemans, Shaft, Dirty Harry, The French Connection, Born Free, Easy Rider, and the list goes on. However, somewhere in the banter of Kelly’s Heroes a burgeoning filmmaker started to notice that the movie was constantly being broken up with individual shots spliced together to create a sequence spliced together to make a film. Instead of going to enjoy a film, I was now studying them, and all at the somewhat tender age of ten.
A lot happens between the dreams of a ten-year old, though, and the reality of a life time. An accepted application to UCLA turned instead to an inability to pay for tuition and an acceptance to life in a small town. Yet no matter what life threw at me, watching and studying films saved me. Add the invention of VHS and now the study became a lifelong passion with the ability to rewind versus hiding in theatre seats.
There’s a lot more to film than most people give it credit for. It’s the visual novel. As lovers of English have always known, there’s more going on between the lines on a page than the story it tells. So too with film. Whether it’s the motif of butterflies in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape or a sombre tone in To Kill a Mockingbird the language of storytelling isn’t any different from the literary devices of traditional English. But, no one really teachers the grammar of the shot. We teach commas, compound sentences, modifiers, descriptive paragraphs, or persuasive essays because we know that children are not going to automatically know how to transfer their dialectic thoughts into abstract letters. Why do we think that they’ll automatically know how to read the same language in film?
As educators, we must learn the language. Research is showing upwards of 65% of students are visual learners. Why are we forcing them to fit within a box they have difficulty with versus providing them with a means to express themselves? Reading, whether through text or visuals, is understanding the communicative message regardless of the media. As such, English isn’t just about English anymore. It’s about students finding strength within themselves and finding the means to communicate that message. Our job as educators is to help them find that voice, that means of communication, and help them assess whether they’ve reached their audience.