The Yale Center of British Art has a fantastic collection of materials online. With each unit I teach I look for images that will enhance the course content and visual literacy practices. Once I have established a regular classroom practice of drawing/looking and have linked this practice to creative and critical skills, I find students more engaged with any one task.
When we were reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I wanted the students to have a visual sense of the woods as imagined in the play. I went to the Search All Collections page. Once here, I clicked on the Prints and Drawings. in the first box, ‘All Fields’ typed in “Trees” and the “forest” to see what would I could discover. I found many wonderful prints.
The first drawing, Ancient Trees, Lullingstone Park (1828) by Samuel Palmer (1805-1881) I used with A Midsummer’s Night Dream. Students drew the image of the forest and then for homework had to imagine the setting for the play.
The delight of the assignment is that we all began with the same image, but we all imagined various points where this ancient wood fit into the play. Although the drawing was realistic as you can see students still added their own reading of the image. Students shared with each other their drawing and their setting, explaining why creating a forest of meaning.
If you search the collections for Samuel Palmer you will find full array of images in various mediums. A follow up assignment would be to ask students to go through the collection a look for another image they would use for the assignment and explain why.
Reading Shakespeare is a challenge. Yet, with an annotated text, students find their way. Along with the normal strategies of reading an old text, in an unusual language, I have also explored using visual literacy skills to enhance meaning and explore the progression of the story.
Drawing and working with visual mediums as a regular practice affords many opportunities to work on critical and creative skills in order to develop insight, awareness, understanding, and enhance articulation.
For this exercise, I asked students to make a visual design of the particular act. A design that communicates both the meanings of the play, but also their interpretations and understandings of the play’s story.
I encourage students to pay attention to the page design, to incorporate place, subjects, people, even conversation that seems significant. I also suggested that they create a visuals that will tell the story but also remind them of their reading experience. The page becomes a canvas of visual knowledge, open to any arrangement that is meaningful to them. The journal without lines gives us this freedom. A freedom they completely explore. The page in the journal becomes a composition and like all the images we view, discuss and draw, a visual medium awaiting discovery and dialogue.
Incorporating visual literacy practices into an English classroom is a standard practice in Australia. In their National curriculum, they begin investigating visual language in the very first years of schooling and continue this practice to the end. A K-12 approach to visual language is an essential skill for our current times. In our own attempts at a national curriculum we have neglected visual communication.
At the Yale Center for British Art, the K-12 program for teachers seeks to foreground visual literacy. The museum becomes a source for experiencing and exploring how visual communicate works. The applications are multifarious.
I regularly use drawing and looking in the classroom. I use these activates to foster creative and critical growth. But I also bring students to the museum to see for themselves. Screens, although the dominant frame in our lives are not the only way to view an image. Seeing an image live, in space, is a form of knowing that has its own logic, emotion, and physicality.
At the Summer Institute we take time to look. And once stopped, we go even further: and take a closer look. Simply, sitting (or standing) in front of an image and looking. What do I see? And waiting. We so quickly want to say what the painting is about or want to look at the placard (both important details). By slowing down and experiencing the visual design, the visual effect, the act of seeing, we enter into an exchange with the artist, we share the same space.
Our visual culture has its roots in our visual history. In a museum, and only here, we are able to stand before an image whose grammar has become dominant. The museum then is a source of seeing how all the made visual world has occurred. In our age of mechanical reproduction we are freed from time and place. Yet, going back to the place and seeing the work in space and in time, provides an opportunity for creative and critical insight. We see in and we are seen and the light in our space is the light in the canvas.
From here we can converse, draw, think, feel and move happily towards further seeing.