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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Visual Representation

As educators, we stare at piles of research, dig through the dreck, and hope to learn something significant, something that can elevate our teaching and help our students become better students. Sometimes, no amount of research can compare to the direct source: our students. When I entered into a serendipitous conversation about "how we think" with my Inquiry English 9 class (a group of struggling readers in a class designed to teach skills for critical thinking alongside content), it was a teachable moment.

I asked them what happened in their brains when they read something: a story, an article in "Transworld Snowboarding", a chapter in their history books. A student in the back forgot to raise his hand but yelled "I see it like a movie in my head." As the volume in the class rose with more and more students chiming in ("It looks like a comic book!"), a lightbulb went off. This group, which rejected "Think Pair Share" and spent more time arguing than working, had visions.

We were about to begin a unit on the five methods for creating characters, a unit that usually begins with a dry excerpt from our ancient literature books and basic notetaking. This was not the group for such rogue and ineffective work. Instead, I sketched out a terrible drawing (a "visual representation"), sub-pre-school level stick figures wearing rudimentary skirts and square shoes, holding tennis rackets, engaged in conversation (something banal about loving English class), a thought bubble above each head. I listed the five methods: actions, speech, appearance, thoughts, and how others feel about them. I let volunteers come to the board, labeling the crummy drawing with words from the list. When all five methods were identified, we talked about how these methods come from real life, how appearance and speech and actions can combine to make others feel a particular way and how thoughts are silent and mysterious. We spent some time ridiculing my drawing, of course, which was great fun for me, but by the end of class, we had read through the dry introduction, taken notes in the form of images, and filled the board, from left to right and from top to bottom, with the students' own creations. This time, monkeys fell in love, stick figures ran away from bullies, and one character in blue proposed to a character in orange.

A week and a half later, after reviewing the information every other day and reading stories with interesting characters, I administered a quiz. I did not give them a heads-up; instead, I told them to do their best; all I wanted to know was how much they knew, and we would go from there. I heard very few complaints. And those who complained grew quiet when I reminded them of the board covered in drawings and of the stories we had carefully read. Every student passed that quiz.

From that point on, visual representations (I call it "visualization") became a regular part of our learning. As we moved from characters to setting and from setting to point of view, my students devised representations on their own and in pairs, drawing somewhat on their peers' creativity but drawing mostly from their own brains. They plead to put their drawings on the board, and they have started to see connections to their work in other classes. They are able to see concepts they could only read about before, and they are engaging with the material in interesting ways. Their invisible thinking became visible, and they are better for it.

Visual representations have a lot of potential. For students whose metacognitive processes are so bogged down in text they can not process effectively, it is a way to see ideas. The connection between the text and the brain manifests in the image, and it has become the most powerful tool in their respective repertoires. I am excited to see how visual representations help this group engage in their own learning, both in my classroom and in others.