Monday, October 3, 2011

Graphicacy: Lessons from Student Visualizations

Graphicacy in the early grades relies on careful steps that help children build proficiencies in reading visual inputs. Precise, learned techniques can foster confidence both in deciphering and in creating pictorial representations. Teachers and parents realize more and more that the world is increasingly visual in its inputs, with laptops, tablets, DVRs, smartphones, advertisements, logos, flash videos, and YouTube streams. Digital natives know no other world. It's no wonder that almost 80 percent of them self-identify as "visual learners."

In this vein, on the second day of school, we decided to try a new introduction to our exploration and colonization unit. Our seventh-graders were beginning a two-year study of American history with a link to their prior year's investigation of European trade and enlightenment. Before delving into details of Cabot and Pizarro, of mercantilism and triangle trade, we started with a simple visualization.

We passed out blank pieces of 8½ x 11 printer paper and asked the seventh-graders to draw the Atlantic Ocean. There were no other instructions. We did not give background information about sailing routes or settlements or parameters about what the image should include. We just said to visualize whatever image came to mind with the words, "Atlantic Ocean." After a brief discussion of what it meant to "visualize" (to create a "mental picture," volunteered one student), they began in tentative earnest.

Sources: Wikimedia Commons, ASIDE

A few students hemmed and asked clarifying questions, because they "didn't want to do it wrong." Most charged forward and began tracing lines on the page. After five or ten minutes, we regrouped and asked if anyone would like to share his or her visualization. Almost everyone raised a hand.

Several students roughly recreated the map of the Atlantic and its surrounding continents. Some used just pencil lines, and we talked about white space and borders. Others shaded the land masses, and we talked about legends and visual cues. Most inserted words or keys, and we talked about labels and captions. A few students used colors or focused on one region of the Atlantic, and we talked about perspective and choice.

One student placed the ocean and the Earth amid the Sun and planets. We talked about microgeography and macrogeography. Another student drew herself on the beach at Martha's Vineyard. Since we had never required a "map" in our instructions, we talked about visual interpretation and signs to distinguish this Atlantic beach from a Pacific coast. One girl imagined a scuba diver beside coral, dolphins, and aqua bubbles. We wondered what fish might hint at the Atlantic rather than the Indian or Arctic. A few boys scribbled wave hunches or shaded with the sides of their pencils around the word "Atlantic." These offered avenues to discuss symbols, codes, and gradations.

In all, the variety of visualizations was what we'd hoped. They were all generated in a hands-on, tactile lesson that lasted no more than 15 minutes. Without direction, the students' pictures let us to talk about longitude and latitude, icons and ideograms, scale and focus, and shadows and hues. These are all part of normal geography and graphic arts instructions, but here they incorporated the larger design of information. Giving students a chance to practice visual thinking is a prime way to segue to the core skills of graphicacy.

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