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Teaching with Visuals: Students Respond to Images

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate

Dan Meyer knows that textbook-driven teaching hasn't served his students well. That's why they wind up taking remedial algebra with him in ninth grade. "They either need more time on content, or they've really been burned by traditional math instruction," says the teacher from San Lorenzo Valley High School, near Santa Cruz, California.

For Meyer, now in his fifth year of teaching, a lightbulb moment happened three years ago when he acquired a projector for his classroom. "That gave me a way to put up a full-screen image really fast," he explains. "I could toss up visuals cheaply and quickly." Meyer, who has a personal interest in graphic design and filmmaking, started looking for high-interest visuals that would promote classroom conversation about related math concepts.

"It was like a dam broke. Before that, I didn't think about finding visuals for the classroom," he says. "Now, I'm walking around daily, thinking about it. I walk around with a digital camera on my phone. As I become more acquainted with my subject matter and more enthusiastic about it, I see examples of it everywhere. And the examples are 100 percent of the time better than what my textbook would have me use to introduce a topic."

Apparently, plenty of teachers agree. Meyer writes a popular education blog called dy/dan. There, he has generated a robust online conversation about integrating visuals into lesson planning. He got things going by posting high-resolution close-ups of two license plates: one from Costa Rica, one from California. His post asked educators to answer the seemingly simple question "What can you do with this?"

Keep It Simple

In kicking off his challenge to colleagues, Meyer deliberately kept instructions to a bare minimum. He told readers only two things: (1) He would post their image or video without any elaboration. (2) He predicted their collaborative ideas for using the particular media would be "superior to the one I originally imagined."

Responses were dazzling in both their display of teacher creativity and the range of subjects addressed. Teachers came up with lesson ideas for teaching everything from permutations to air quality to social justice, all based on two snapshots of license plates. "We have educators with a lot of creativity that they need to express," Meyer notes. (For more on this sentiment, read the Edutopia.org article "The Eyes Have It: Potent Visuals Promote Academic Richness," which explores how teachers from California to New York are using an art curriculum to improve critical thinking, writing, and academic achievement.)

The very nature of blogs may encourage some of this innovation. Because readers can see all the other comments, they have to push beyond the most obvious suggestions to come up with an original idea. "It almost forces commenters to get into more distant lands," Meyer surmises. One reader even compared the wisdom-of-the-crowds activity with lesson study. In the end, the "What Can You Do With This?" brainstorming activity proved so successful that Meyer has made it an ongoing series on his blog.

Meanwhile, he continues to look for new images to share with his own students. "These are students who have had lecture-based mathematics for so long without success," he points out. "I have to innovate. I absolutely have to use visuals, use video clips, use the world around them as much as possible." The real challenge in developing more creative teaching methods isn't time, he suspects. Rather, he adds, "It's imagination. It's creativity. It's developing enthusiasm for your subject and then looking for it everywhere." (Read the Edutopia.org article "Cross Training: Arts and Academics Are Inseparable" to learn how a Boston school successfully melds art with core curriculum.)

On the Money

Recently, Meyer prepped his students for a homework assignment. Instead of assigning problems from the text, however, he showed them a short clip from the thriller film The Bone Collector. Their assignment: Analyze the last frame from the clip (which he had also printed as a handout). It showed a dollar bill next to a footprint. They brainstormed some ideas as a whole class about the mathematical significance of that image. Then he sent students home with an open-ended question: What could they make of it?

This was clearly a different kind of homework assignment than students expected. "Usually, they would get textbook pages and strict instructions," Meyer says. "Instead, they have a photo, a good sense of where they're going next, and the freedom to pursue different routes."

The next day, classroom conversation was lively -- and revealing. "A lot of kids who are used to getting pages out of a textbook didn't have the perseverance to take the problem all the way to its end," he admits. But those who dug in, he adds, "found a lot of value in the problem. They took the problem and made it their own." Meyer also posted the film clip on his blog, with this familiar question to fellow teachers: "What can you do with this?" (See the comments, and add your own.)

Cable in the Classroom recently recognized Meyer for his creative use of video to improve math instruction. In this podcast, he shares the thinking behind his innovative strategies.

How do you use visuals in your classroom? How do your students respond to interesting images? Please share your experiences.

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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Comments (73)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Holly Hurd's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach special education, life skills support, at the middle school level. I use a lot of visual aides in the classroom. The students really respond to having this visual to relate to the material they are learning. One activity I do on a weekly basis is the News-2-You newspaper publication. This discusses a current event and has a news report on it. I am able to take the topic and create visuals so that my students are able to fully comprehend the material and apply it to their life which helps with retaining the information.

Suzie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Combining a global network with visual learning sounds like a powerful combination. Do your students also get the chance to send photos that help others "see" what their corner of the world looks like?

Suzie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Sounds like you have an engaging math activity of your own in development. I like the addition of manipulatives and a group brainstorming process. Let us know how it goes.

Suzie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Dan Meyer offers a good example of how far a teacher can go without a lot of technology investment. His available tools are the same as yours: a laptop and a projector. As he said in our conversation, the key to developing more interesting materials is "imagination. It's creativity. It's developing enthusiasm for your subject and then looking for it everywhere." Good luck!

Suzie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Not sure what grade level you're teaching, but it sounds like you've found an interesting way to introduce computational thinking across subject areas. Thanks for sharing.

Suzie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thanks for pointing readers to The Futures Channel--terrific resource for the classroom. I'm willing to bet that your students will come up with a range of creative answers to your open-ended question, "What can you make of it?" Good luck!

Tori Howard's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a first grade teacher, it is important that each day is different to keep the students interested. One of our favorite writing activities is the "magic paper". I use a color copied transparency and place it on the overhead projector. We then use a piece of white cardstock and each student uses it to point out something that they see in the large picture. By using the cardstock, the images that they are pointing out seem to jump off the screen. After sharing what they see in the pictures, the students are then given the opportunity to write in their writer's notebooks about the picture. After the writing time, we take the time to share. The students are so excited from the very beginning that they produce excellent writing and are anxious to share.

Laura Fiore's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a middle school teacher, I feel that it is important to approach lessons in many different ways. I loved the idea of showing a clip and connecting it with your lesson. I used a shor piece from Bram Stoker's Dracula to reinforce how setting effects the mood of the story. Students who were struggling on why setting and mood worked together really connected with the material I was expecting them to learn. Students were to brain storm in a group afterwards and make a list of items that added to the overal mood and what emotion those items invoked.

I also have students use pictures from magazines to tell stories. They have to select photos that show at least 2 people, then they need to develop a summary of a story to go with the picture. They place these summaries and phots in their portfolios. I have them write every other week and I give them a choice of working on something new or further developing an idea from their portfolio. Often, my students will select a picture summary and continue to develope the story, or they may use it to write something new. I have had a few students write poetry based on their phots and summaries.

Loretta Gordon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What is the name of the golbal website that you use with your students?

Linda McDermon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

We take digital pictures and movies through out the week at our K-5 public school. These are used to create an imovie each week of 1-3 minutes that introduces our live, in-house morning school news program. The students love "caught being good" for the pictures. It helps build "community" within the school, developing "ownership" of the buildings and grounds. We send "quick pics" to a school blog to keep parents informed of current activities at school which helps them feel a school connection, too. We also send pictures to our local weekly newspaper. The weekly school email letter has pictures of the Citizens of the Week and sometimes other events. Our student (writing) blogs use pictures, also, matching content; pictures are just a good, quick recap and draw interest. We get a written permission slip from every student at the beginning of the year to be photographed.
Linda McDermon
Rural Hall Elementary School
Rural Hall, NC

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