Media Literacy

Incorporating Photos, Videos, and Other Media in the Classroom

By treating media like text, teachers can create a fast, relevant, and affordable lesson that stimulates lively discussion.

October 26, 2023
BremecR / iStock

Given the 24-hour onslaught of graphics, images, audio, and videos hitting students of all ages, we need to empower them as learners and help them build the skills to read and analyze the multimedia texts that surround them. It’s easy to assume that tech-native kids know how to navigate media. But tech-native does not equal tech-savvy.

Students still require explicit instruction and practice in how to read all types of media as texts. Developing this real-world skill increases buy-in and helps build the foundational skills that students need to create their own media.  

Why use media: A refresher

If you already use multimedia texts in your classroom, here’s some validation. If you’re not using these texts on a regular basis, here are a few reasons to reconsider.

Efficient: Most media (photos, videos, audio, infographics, and memes) is short, allowing students to analyze multiple texts and gain more practice applying skills in one class period. Sample more cells; review and analyze more stories; practice identifying context, subtext, tone, symbolism, and themes in history and English.

Relevant: Using multimedia texts is a great way to bring different places, cultures, and people into your classroom. You can rapidly respond to changing circumstances, incorporate current events, and tap into student interests. Moreover, you’ll build students’ social and emotional intelligence as you help them read and analyze the history, culture, and emotions in each piece of media.

Engaging: Since you can bring in media that connects to students right now, media can launch more authentic dialogue and help engage all learners. As a launching-off point, short texts stimulate discussion, writing tasks, reflection, personal connections, and research, and can take students deeper into any topic. 

Affordable: The ubiquitous nature of media (including photos, videos, audio, and memes) makes it easy to add to any lesson. No need to buy books or texts, no need to worry about outdated material. Free and open-source options are readily available. 

Reading and analyzing media: Questions to support student mastery 

Beyond discussing the Five Ws—Who, What, When, Where, and Why—multimedia texts offer ample opportunities to dig deeper into the context and subtext of ideas, issues, and events. As you share media with students, start with the Five Ws, then push them to read critically. Here are a few go-to questions and activities for reading media. 

What is the goal? What does the producer want viewers to do?

  • What story is being told?
  • Who is telling it?
  • How does the story make you feel? How did it make you feel that? 
  • What storytelling techniques do you see? What do you hear?  
  • What does the story make you think about?
  • What tools (light, shadow, color; movement, images; sound; composition, juxtaposition;  density, space; character, assumptions, stereotypes) are being used to tell this story?
  • Who/what is being left out of the story?
  • What happened before the text? What happened after?
  • What rhetorical devices and figurative language are being used? Analyze the impact.
  • How do colors, images, and text work together?

Photos as texts

Photos are fantastic, in part because the cliché is true: Each photo is worth a thousand words. And the more you help students learn how to read photos as texts, the more words they’ll unlock. Whether you use them as a quick bell-ringer, inspiration for an analysis activity, or a launching-off point for discussion, photos (including advertisements, memes, photographs, paintings, and sculptures) infuse context in any lesson with added layers of action and emotion. Here are a few ideas for reading photos.

Interact with images

Get students up and moving with these Living Images activities. Note: While the photos highlight social studies content, the activities are all universal and skills-based. Swap in photos from any content.

Flip the Script: In addition to the answering the Five Ws and the analysis questions (above), flip the script when reading pictures: Most people in Western cultures read left to right, top to bottom. How did you read the photo? What happens to the story of this image if you read it right to left? Bottom to top? Anything shift?

Micro-Research: Assign each student or team a picture related to a concept, idea, or person. Students research based on the photo. Bonus: Students can physically embody the photo in tableau scenes to share their research.  

Change Lenses: Challenge students to see what they see every day differently: How might someone from a different generation or culture experience this media? Ads and music videos work particularly well. 

  Some suggestions for photo collections and resources:

Videos as texts

Whether you grew up with TV carts, a projector system, or a dedicated room for watching filmstrips and reel-to-reel shorts, some version of video has been part of your education, as it should be. Videos help capture all the nuances that words miss and are proven engagement tools.

As with reading photos, students need to learn how to read and analyze all aspects of videos to fully analyze them as texts. Help them hone their natural skills, and prepare them for future tasks creating their own videos. Here are some ideas for reading videos:    

Read the layers of the story: Students already know there are lots of tools that help tell every story. From lighting to sound to pacing, build their critical thinking skills with some explicit instruction on filmmaking techniques. Students love this mousetrap text, and it sparks a lot of conversation about story structure and narrative arc, music and lighting. Similarly, this video (note—there’s one swear word) has it all: laughs, tears, and all the good feels.  

Read with all your senses: While this Michael Phelps video is dated now, it’s still a great text with myriad layers. The lighting and images alone tell a story, so let them. Watch the video once, and have students respond to the Five Ws. Watch a second time, this time without sound. Ask students, “What did you see?” Watch a third time, but have students close their eyes and just listen. “What did you hear? Feel?” Watch a final time. “How has the shift in senses impacted your reading of the text?” “How is the filmmaker manipulating your senses to increase their communication impact?” 

Read what students want: Ask students to share TikTok and YouTube favorites. If students connect to it, you’ll have more success. Establish classroom and/or project jobs that require students to bring in videos related to classroom content. A “Context Creator” finds current videos that build off of classroom topics and themes; the “Archivist” brings in historical content to flesh out understanding; the “Influencer” identifies social media images, memes, and posts that tie in to course content. Perhaps you even have a “Lighthearted Laughs” role responsible for bringing in a little humor—content related or not. Rotate roles each week. 

Here are some additional resources: 

Using media in the classroom connects students to content in authentic, engaging ways and helps you connect to your students, too. The diversity of media makes it a great way to kick off a lesson, dive deeper into content, or wrap up a concept. No matter where you begin and where you go, using videos, audio, photos, infographics, and memes in the classroom will be a win. 

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