We had just read a series of short stories in class, and I had intended for my high school students to write an essay comparing and contrasting how a certain topic or theme was portrayed across the stories. But, you know how it goes. It was the week before Christmas break, and I was running out of time. I just didn’t think we would have time to draft a full essay. I just wish the students could show me where they would go in this essay, I thought. Could they create a visual essay? Is there even such a thing? It was a little scary to conduct such an experiment, but I was interested to see what products my students would create.
I envisioned that students could use a combination of words, images, and quotations to show evidence of a deeper understanding of one of the stories.
I left the assignment pretty open-ended to allow for a variety of responses. I didn’t show any models or examples because I didn’t have any to show. I also left the medium up in the air, letting students decide whether to construct this on paper or digitally.
Since I was low on time, I presented the idea to students one day, giving them the rest of the day and evening to brainstorm and think of how they would proceed. Then I gave them one 45-minute class period to complete the visual essay.
What Students Learned
All students chose to create their “essays” in Google Slides. Let’s examine the different varieties in student responses.
Exhibit 1: Ammon
In Ammon’s visual essay over “A Worn Path,” he includes a paragraph summarizing the main point he would make about fantasy versus reality in the story. In addition, he chose two images to illustrate the contrast between the two, both showing a path, one bathed in light, another cloaked in shadow. His visual essay focuses more on his written summary, and the images support his main point.
Exhibit 2: Genna
Genna includes a summary of the story “Araby,” along with two sets of contrasting images, representing both the physical journey the main character takes to the bazaar and the symbolic journey he takes on his way to self-discovery. The images representing the character’s actual journey correspond to plot points in the story, but the images represented show her understanding of the character’s motivations and ultimate realizations, which can be challenging to uncover in this story.
Exhibit 3: Paul
Paul formats his visual essay as a flowchart, using arrows to illustrate his train of thought. His visual essay shows his thinking about the function of the bazaar in the story as a symbol. which ultimately leads him to uncover a theme. The images he includes underscore each of his points.
Exhibit 4: Tierra
Tierra begins with one main point about the function of the forest in “A Worn Path,” and then uses quotations from the story to show how this setting contrasts with the main character’s home.
Exhibit 5: Isaiah
Isaiah simply uses a group of images along with the title of the story. The images are more literal representations of the major plot points: how the grandmother travels through the forest to get to a doctor’s office where she can get medicine to treat her grandson, who has swallowed lye. The images convey his literal comprehension of the story, but lack evidence of close reading or a deeper understanding of the story.
What I Learned
For having so little direction and such a short time, I thought that the majority of students produced a worthwhile product that gave me insight into their thinking and interpretation of a story.
As I looked over each visual essay, I found myself wishing that each student were with me so that he or she could talk me through his or her choices, particularly when it came to the images. Since images are so subjective, I wondered whether I was sometimes ascribing thinking to an image that wasn’t actually there. Or, on the flip side, was I missing a depth of thought that was actually there, as in the case of Isaiah in Exhibit 5? This problem could easily be remedied by asking students to sit down and discuss their final product with me, to present their work to the rest of the class, or to write a reflective process piece to accompany their visual piece.
I would try this experiment again. There was enough student success to show me that this can be an alternative to a written text when I am short on time or when we need a fresh way of looking at a text. Despite the fact that I now have a better idea of what a visual essay can be, I will continue to leave the assignment open-ended for students to foster their creativity. I predict that once I begin showing examples, I will see little variety in the products I receive.
For this first go-round, I thought it would be unfair to assign a grade to the work, since students were given no guidance about what I was looking for. In the future, I will assign a grade only after giving students a chance to explain the thinking that went into their visual essay. I think that is the only way to accurately understand how the visual essay connects to their thinking about the text.
Like any good experiment, this assignment included both trial and error. Although I wouldn’t conduct every new assignment in this way, it was rewarding to see how students can surprise us when given the chance.