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Teaching with Visuals: Students Respond to Images

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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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 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 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.

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Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate

Comments (74) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Janice's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

With the advent of the document camera as an upgrade of the projector, I have used this piece of technology in many ways to provide visuals for my students. One of my favorite lessons was in science when we explored owl pellets. Demonstrating how to extract the tiny bones from the pellet was simplified by the fact that I could just zoom in to allow all students an excellent view. Students were highly motivated, even the students who at first where squeamish. Later we used the document camera for students to share the skeletons they reassembled or if they found something they were excited about (ex. one student found a jaw with most of the teeth still attached).

MGoodrich's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Isn't it amazing about the many uses of document cameras? If a classroom has them and can use them effectively who knows what can happen in there!They are great as you look at writing samples and where that example fits into the rubric that was created. Those anchors of good average and poor quality writing samples help the kids understand what the teacher is looking for and really help the teachers explain what they are having the kids strive towards.

MGoodrich's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Something happens when students enter the upper grades. For some reason some teachers feel that students do not need the concrete such as visuals and manipulatives. They always give them the abstract and it is so difficult to make those connections. Good for you for adding more to your classroom isntruction. Are your manipulatives made or do you purchase them?
I find that with my students having them create their own in math and in other subject areas really increase their thinking and stimulates their learning. They love to work with their own "things".

Janice's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I like the fact that you can use them immediately (if they are hooked up) to demonstrate examples of what you expect or to share student work. No need to make a overhead master. I've used it for many different things and the possibilities are only limited by your creativity.

hafsah's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

plZ, kindly post an information regarding the use of visual images in teaching english language. Spicifically in kindergarten..plz?

Kay's picture

I have tons of old fine arts transparencies that used to come with textbooks. I was at one school that was throwing them away! Well, I took most of them and as a self-proclaimed and proud packrat, this does nothing, but reinforce my love for stuff noone else wants. Some are of classical art and rare pieces that I have not been able to find on Google images! I have used them with AP students, CP students, Reading students, and Repeaters. They are prompts for descriptive and narrative writing as well as freewrites and idea starters for papers. I also use them to connect to the theme in novels and stories. One is titled, "Fire and Light Against Darkness". The artist is David Alfaro Siqueiros. We used it to write about Frederick Douglass' Narrative of an American slave. The students simply had to connect the visual to some idea in the novel. Their response could take any form. Students wrote poems, journals, or comparison contrast pieces--in ten minutes--and it proved to be some of the best writing they did all year. Another is "Still Life Supreme" by Martha Mayer Erlebacher. I used it with ninth grade repeaters to teach them how to write about spatial organization and how to use transitions. The students had to write about the visual in such a way that the reader knows where every piece of fruit was in relation to every other piece of fruit on the table.

Connie's picture
First grade teacher from Minnesota

I am just beginning to realize the value of having a document camera in my first grade classroom. They were just installed before the beginning of this year. Thanks for all of the great information and tips on how to use it. I love the idea of showing the class science experiments. This will eliminate the "I can't see" portion of the lesson.

Patricia's picture
Kindergarten teacher from MN

They should be used more often. As a kindergarten teacher in an immersion school, I use visuals all the time and I am glad to see that they are, in fact, also used in regular classrooms. I think that human beings are very dependent on the sense of sight; they need to see things to understand and learn them. However, we should not forget to stimulate other senses as well because humans learn best in many different ways...

Jen Stewart's picture

I appreciate this, I teach kindergarten feel that I can give them great visuals from the real world that is right around us. We have an IPad for classroom use and I feel we can utilize the camera for and with students. What a great way to add creativity to an assignment.

AVoorhees's picture

I think this is a great idea and it allows students to be more and more creative. It also allows students to go out of the box to come up with answers to a problem or formulate a question. This has allowed myself to think about the lesson I teach and ways I can incorporate images or even technology into my classroom lectures. Great read!

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