A Draft of the Short Chapter I’m Writing about Stories-without-Words for Terry Freedman’s Second Edition of Coming of Age

Terry has worked tirelessly at assembling a group of Web 2.0 educators to contribute chapters to the revised version of the book, and he’s moved us along nicely to today’s due date– now, until I start revising, I can work on other things, such as a response to Terry about his post responding to my last one.

Stories Without Words: A Simple Strategy to Teach Big Lessons with the Web

“It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.
The mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.”
Oscar Wilde

“We must accept the fact that learning to communicate with graphics,
with music, with cinema, is just as important as communicating with words.”
George Lucas

“The Western memory museum is now largely visual. Photographs have an insuperable power to determine what we recall of events…”
“Regarding the Torture of Others” Susan Sontag

drivingalong.jpg earlymorning.jpg birds.jpg birdlooking.jpg glasswave.jpg grosbeak.jpg milkweed.jpg drivingalong.jpg

Telling stories in pictures but not words, by accessing, manipulating and storing the images through Web 2.0 tools, and then embedding the stories on blogs or wikis, gives students the opportunity to learn important visual and cultural literacy lessons while developing their writing and creative-thinking skills.

We live in an era that privileges image over word, a time when photographs are “less objects to be saved than messages to be disseminated, circulated” (Susan Sontag), yet in school, we continue to train our students almost exclusively in the use of written and spoken language as though images don’t factor into how we make sense of the world. When we do employ photos and films in our classrooms, we rarely teach our students how to read the grammar of images; outside the art room, we rarely show them how to use images as an important means of expression; and many of us miss opportunities to have students use images to explore cultural and traditional language literacies. Somehow, manipulating images in a school day already stretched for time feels too much like play, like a waste of precious minutes better spent preparing for the next onslaught of examinations. But in a world where images engulf us, flashing incessantly across newspapers, televisions and computer screens–often taken not by professionals but by amateurs snapping, posting and sending their shots–it is critical for teachers to bring images right into the center of the classroom where we can examine how and why it is they work, and what they have to tell us about written and spoken language, and about our world.

Furthermore, we must respond to what Sir Ken Robinson observes in his 2001 book, Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative “Graduates can’t communicate well, they can’t work in teams, and they can’t think creatively” (p.4). Indeed, over the years I have found that as students are increasingly groomed to perform on standardized tests, they correspondingly lose their delight in playing with words, or messing around with ideas and group projects; they look for the right answers, those that will please the teacher and examiner, those that will get them the best grades. Or they lose interest altogether. As they wrestle with textbooks filled with jargon and convoluted stylistic devices, they quite rightfully come to equate schoolroom language with something stiff, fossilized, irrelevant. In a world that Daniel Pink reminds us in his book, A Whole New Mind, is demanding creative, flexible thinkers, we hold tight to what Paolo Freire has called “the banking concept of education” (see Pedagogy of the Oppressed: Chapter Two, reprinted here. To prepare our students for a work world that demands collaboration, often across distances, we insist our students not look at one another’s thinking, and we miss opportunities to connect them virtually through their projects. In a world that requires excellent communication skills, we focus on academic writing for academic audiences. And so, quite naturally, our students’ words grow tired, their phrases plucked from the jargon-cliché handbook; their sentences strings of boxcars clanking along down the page or out into the air. Even when students are excited by their ideas and genuinely wish to express them to others, they often lack an intense relationship with language, a lively engagement with style and a real audience.

This is where we teachers can turn to the poets or very young children for help, for they both make language fresh by keeping it strange, marveling at the sounds, the textures, and looks of words, thinking about the odd things words do to one another when pushed together. If we are to help our students communicate well, collaborate effectively, and think creatively, we must help them to use language precisely and inventively and persuasively in all kinds of contexts. We must help them to use the language of sound and image as well as word.

Taking Away Words, Handing Students Images
And so in my undergraduate writing and literature classes, I take written and spoken language away from students. I open courses with exercises involving music and image as a way to disorient these would-be writers by turning up with the unexpected. They expect to work with words; I give them images. They want to tell stories or write essays, which we do, but with no words at all before moving into language. By having to write without language, they have to examine both the ways in which images can and can’t express meaning, and how and when words work.

Gifted teachers, such as Josh Schachter in Arizona , hand cameras to kids and say, take twenty photos of a lamp, each one expressing a different emotion. Or take twenty pictures expressing time. The students compare their results, talk about complex abstractions, talk about the elements of a photograph. At MIT, first-year students explore their new home, the campus, through the visual, with “photography as a method of seeing and a tool for better understanding new surroundings.” I do a similar exercise with my first-semester students, asking them to gather and share images that represent something about their reactions to Vermont, as shown here.

Adding the Web to the Equation

Enter the Web 2.0.

Suddenly and luckily, with the explosion of online options for accessing, gathering, generating, manipulating and sharing images, we have a rich array of easy-to-use, free tools to use in the classroom, and these new literacies and skills need not seem so challenging to introduce to our students. Even in classrooms without access to cameras, using images from any number of imaging-sharing sites, such as Flickror Bubbleshare or Zoomr can provide students experience in image selection and ordering, and thus in understanding how images gain their power. Students can use Frappr to attach images to points on a map, say, choosing a single image to represent their nation’s capitol, or their own street corner; on a Mac they can use Image Tricksto alter photos so as to be unrecognizable or to bring out certain features; with Typgenerator they can even turn text into random, abstract images. They can navigate image-only projects on the Web, and comment through image responses—an image for an image. They can consult Pomona College’s Online Visual Literacy Project with its excellent set of definitions and examples of the elements of visual communications or Amateur Illustrator for tips on creating effective illustrations. Almost every week more options arrive on our Web-step.

In math class, kids can tell explain mathematical facts by taking pictures of natural and human-made phenomena illustrating the concept. Put kids into teams and give each a camera and have them work together to create collaborative image stories to interpret literature, or explain chemistry processes, or explore the causes of a historical event. Have them create photo timelines of historical events or their own lives with tools like Dandelife . Mandarin Design offers lots of tips on ways to use images inventively on a blog.

They can share their results on a blog or wiki with the rest of the class as a way to prepare for a presentation, or to get their peers to think deeply about their topic. Words can be re-introduced—slowly–through titles or tags before introducing full-blown written or spoken explanations. Indeed, students can become more critical consumers of visual media by becoming inventive users and creators of visual content. They can become teachers, explorers, artists, deep learners with these tools. What a break from manipulating the same old numbers repeatedly in the same ways and writing five-paragraph essays!

Because of the Web and its emerging toolset, my students have interacted with an art gallery owner halfway across the country, often communicating with images. Via our course blog (now, unfortunately, defunct), he sent images to the students, one a day, without a word. The students at first didn’t know what to make of these missives, what they should do, how they should respond. Then the gallery owner left them a post asking them to create their own gallery show with any four paintings they found on the Web—what four artworks would they put together in a show and why. They shared their “shows” with him, and he sent them more images, and in turn he shared, virtually, the shows being held at his Chicago gallery.

I want students to play around with using photos to respond to texts and to think about their world, and to think about the role of the written image in comparison. In a creative writing class, students visited via the Web an international virtual artist collaborative, Dispatx, that makes their process transparent online as projects are being developed, visual artists posting images or fragments, or conceptual ideas to blogs; my students then visited their blogs, toured around, “read” the image stories as well as the language-based ones, and left the artists comments. We have created John-Berger like essays ( see Ways of Seeing: ), using images from popular media and then from our own cameras. We sometimes write with photographs about a theme in a short story, for example, here, as well as story-without-words versions of literary analysis.

As students become more comfortable thinking visually, and thinking critically about the visual, they begin to see how stepping away from language for a moment to think about their ideas in image can help the preciseness of their diction, the development of their points, and the depth of their ideas. Occasionally I will hold class in the computer lab and have the group find an image from a repository I have set up, an image they think connects somehow to whatever book or poem we are studying. I’ll have them write for ten minutes about those connections as a way to have them return to written language while considering visual metaphors.

Stories Without Words
A particularly effective and rewarding exercise easily adaptable to any grade level is to have students post stories-without-words on their blogs. We are, after all, naturally drawn to stories from the moment we understand language. Creating compelling narratives with clear beginnings, middles and endings solely with images teaches visual literacy skills while revealing the arc of a narrative, transitions, the structure of an argument, and the importance of the carefully chosen word. Learners explore the act of reading text versus navigating images, the relationships between writer and reader, of form to meaning. Sharing their image-stories via blogs also offers lessons about audience-writer relationships, allows peer-to-peer learning, and enhances learning-community bonding, by promoting an unfolding discussion and feedback loop about the process and outcomes of the exercise. They want to share, analyze and enjoy these stories.

Sites such as Tabblo invite us to make collages and poster-type stories; with Mac’s iMovie or the PC’s Moviemaker we can choose seamless transitions between the frames; or we can take the same images and spread them out on the blog page, or link them in a diagram using Gliffy. Students can create and read other Flickr 5-frame stories. They can moblog picture stories from field trips for science labs. Every discipline, every classroom can potentially enhance the learning experience by incorporating powerful lessons in image creation and use.

Once students return to words by telling the same story, now in words only, they find that their use of language is reinvigorated, every word made fresh and strange, challenging their notions of what makes a powerful statement, an effective metaphor, a moving flow of words within sentences and paragraphs. For college students, the lessons can be quite profound, as I wrote in a 2005 blog post about Julina: “Indeed, publishing this story on the blog has a significant impact on the work and on the writer. As she receives feedback from her peers–some show interest in her story, some in her use of images, others in what she might do next–she can read their telling of the story; they in turn become part of the story and the writing of it. One reader suggests a possible next exercise based on work she has done in a dance class (yes–finally–we see here the integration of the student’s full education, bringing lessons from one class into another, the apprentice becomes the expert becomes the apprentice).”

Even twenty-year-old students, if given half a chance will reconnect with their childlike, playful side, as one student did in his image-story, “The Shave,” that opens his travel blog. They experiment with the effect of weaving images into their posts as Piya does, quite poetically here and here; some even try their hand at photojournalism, as Zoey does on her blog from Berlin.

As one student, blogging with his camera and ipod from Southeast Asia, remarked upon his return to the college classroom, “Cameras and computers have become the tools that have allowed me to blend my life, academics, and adventures together…They have granted me access to an innovative education that is all my own…I am using cameras and computers to relate my own experiences to the books I read and the lectures I listen to…Furthermore, I am able to share these experiences…”

If these tools and approaches can help twenty-year-olds find their way back to their creative, thoughtful, collaborative selves, then imagine what they would be capable of, if as K-12 learners, they had had opportunities to become skilled readers and producers of visual media.

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