Monday, March 2, 2009

Engaging the Eye Generation - Book Tour!

Today is blog stop #1 for Johanna Riddle and her new book, Engaging the Eye Generation: Visual Literacy Strategies for the K-5 Classroom. (See my previous post for a short overview of the book.) I was lucky to have a Q & A with Ms. Riddle.

You had a lot of energy and inspiration when you started your job in Florida. What advice do you have to new School Library Media Specialists who don't know quite how to get started?

I am well known for my bursts of enthusiasm, often followed by a bout of head scratching and a “now what?” However, I can recommend a few essentials, guaranteed to get any new media specialist off to a sound start.
First, get to know your collection. After all, you are your school’s expert on these resources! That means not only making time to review the subjects, formats, reading levels, and relevance of the materials your have, but finding out how those resources fit into your school’s learning landscape. It is so easy to become, and remain, bogged down in the myriad demands of each day. (My media clerk, Becky Blankenship, and I used to call it “death by minutia”), but carve out some time familiarize yourself with your framework. Get to know the standards and benchmarks of each subject area, and take a good look at the new NETS standards for teachers. You add value to your school and your media center when you have the expertise to help students and teachers draw connections between those resources and your school’s curriculum. It also helps you to identify the holes in your collection, and begin to devise a meaningful map for future acquisitions.
I would also advise new media specialists to cultivate a sense and scope for their roles as leaders, learners, and collaborators. Information Power (1998, AASL and AECT) is the best book that I know for clearly defining the multiple roles of school media specialists. I can’t tell you how many times I read and re-read it. I also looked around my school district for the most dynamic media centers that I could find, and simply asked to spend a little time with the media specialist who created and cultivated these exceptional programs. The programs were widely diverse, yet shared a common thread of excellent management and a sincere desire to be of service to the teachers, students, and parents of their learning community. I would have to add that the National Board process further encouraged me to identify and prioritize principles of effective media instruction and service.
Finally, be kind to yourself. I found working in the media center to be the ultimate professional growth experience. Found your media center on a desire to be of service to your school community, and relevant to the needs of today’s learners. Begin with the technology tools you have on hand, and strategize on ways to include them in student learning. Cultivate a willingness to grow with your profession, and you will achieve great things.

You say that collaboration is key and making "small learning communities" is ideal. Sometimes teachers use the time that the students go to the library to get other work done - have you found this to be a stumbling block? Have you had trouble encouraging teachers to stay with you and help with the class while doing some of these labor-intensive projects? Do they collaborate on many levels of the experience?

The answers to these questions are as diverse as the teachers who comprise any given faculty. If you build it, will they come? Certainly, there are teachers who are more eager to collaborate. Those teachers see collaboration as the way to make learning richer and more relevant for their students. They also tend to view the media center as more of a learning resource for their students. Other teachers are not as eager—they may perceive collaborative teaching as being too different from their teaching style, or too much trouble, or perhaps working with another teacher makes them feel nervous and exposed in some ways. (One of the side benefits of being a media specialist is that we quickly cultivate a comfort level with our own humanity---after all, we're "on" just about one hundred percent of the time.) They may view the media center primarily as a place to check out books, and your primary role as the shelver and duster of those books. You have to build that vision for shared learning. When you know your resources and your curriculum, you can begin to suggest collaborations. Begin with teachers who want to work with media resources and then share those first models with the rest of the faculty. Be proactive about asking teachers how you can participate with them to maximize student learning. Think of collaboration as an initiative that you are tending within your school community. Over time, that initiative will grow.
The best collaborations are the ones where each teacher brings their respective strengths to the table, rather than simply dividing a set of tasks. We’re aiming for synergy here! Planning and management are key. Sit down with the classroom teacher and spell out that plan together. For example, a fifth grade teacher and I decided to teach a unit on early explorers. After some joint planning (some of which was formal sit down planning—augmented by quick emails or a word or two in the hallway), we decided to co-teach a whole group class, outlining and demonstrating the skills and processes that we would be addressing, and providing a foundation of general knowledge for the students. A second session used learning centers to guide students through the processes gathering and organizing multi source research—again, in a team teaching format. After that, the classroom instructor and I worked independently to teach in our particular areas of focus— the classroom teacher handled the writing component of a project while I helped students take, create, or gather digital images, and to organize those images. Finally, the teacher sent small groups of students to the media center to “put it all together” while she continued to cover the topic through learning centers in her classroom. The teachers, the students, and I all knew where we were going—and why we were going there---before we began the process. A side benefit is on-the-job skill acquisition for teachers. I know that I learned more about teaching writing skills from this process, while the classroom teacher adapted my “cut and paste” research technique to future classroom projects. We shared our project with the faculty, entered it into the county social studies fair, and hung an exhibit of student work in the school hallway. And guess what? The next year, another fifth grade teacher asked if I would be willing to work with him and his students in the same way, while a third grade teacher asked if we could use the same approach, with age appropriate skills, to teach a research unit on Medieval times.
Scheduling is a prime consideration in establishing and promoting a collaborative atmosphere in your school. Your principal is the main determiner of the schedule for your media center. If she supports an open media center—the optimal schedule—then it will be much easier to establish and maximize collaborative teaching models. If the role of your media schedule is to provide a steady wheel of planning time for classroom teachers, then the task becomes infinitely more difficult. I worked with a mixed schedule for most of my media career—about half of the time was whole group schedule, with the classroom teacher present, and the other half, open media, which provided time for small group and independent learning. The last year, drastic district actions meant that I was dually cut to half time employment and assigned the new the role of filling in a special area gap. That decision dramatically changed the look and feel of our programs. I did a lot of small group teaching on my lunch break and after school!—but the collaborative nature of teaching was greatly diminished. The further we compartmentalize curriculum and fragment schedules, the more isolated school centered learning becomes, which, is, of course, quite the opposite of the collaborative learning and communication that students engage in during their “off school” hours.

The jewelry box metaphor you use to explain drives and files is helpful. What other metaphors have you found successful?

I was an art teacher for many years. My unofficial motto is “Show me a visual.” I also believe in the notion of moving from concrete to abstract. One of my favorite metaphors is to demonstrate the notion of layering images with Photoshop Elements by showing my students a stack of clear report covers, each with an image drawn on them, or a color added. As I begin to stack the images, adding more detail, students begin to make the connection to the layering process of PSE software. And, of course, storyboarding is a metaphor of types for digital storytelling. I describe our glorious amalgams of index cards, sticky notes, and tape on page 67 and 68 of my book. “Stir me a Story (p. 59) also provides a visual image to help primary students understand how the parts of a story come together to form a whole.

I notice you like the tried and true technologies like PowerPoint and Photoshop. Have you used any new Web 2.0 technologies like Glogster or Mixbook to achieve some of your goals?

During the first few years of my work in the media center, district perimeters afforded much freer access to trials and free downloads. My students and I began our journey into visual literacy using those free resources. It was a district decision to narrow that range, simultaneously increasing firewalls and diminishing school based administrative rights. (In fact, our media specialists no longer have administrative rights to load their own programs on media center computers—they must request that a district tech specialist come out to the school to load all programs). These restrictions made it necessary to focus on maximizing the possibilities of the programs that I owned outright. However, we’ve had fun developing several blog sites, using them to gather resources, share work, and communicate with each other. You can check out one of those at
I do encourage my students to work with a variety of platforms and software. I found that a simple way to promote that investigation was to print out bookmarks with a sample of a piece of work created with something like Glogster, a header that read “Have you tried Glogster?” and the web address. A number of students who belonged to after school groups like our Samsula Snappers digital photo club would bring in work produced with new and exciting programs. It keeps them—and me-- growing!

Have you made videos with the students? If so, what equipment and software do you use? Do you post them to YouTube or something similar?

Moving from still images to digital story making to video production seems like a natural progression to me. We cut our teeth on our morning news show, a live broadcast interspersed with short video clips from students—interviews, announcements, and so on. Video became part of our wider classroom experience after we had worked with sequential stills for a while. We began with short, whole group projects, such videotaping a science experiment and outlining the scientific process. As the students gained skill with the production process, they began to collaborate on small video projects, such as the persuasive shorts described on page 113. Originally, we used Premiere Elements—it was smooth transition from Photoshop Elements, and, again, the tool we had on hand. Later on, the district supplied each media center with a Mac and iMovie. We submitted some of our work to the International Student Media Festival. Winning projects were uploaded to School Tube, courtesy of ISMF. Others were included in Best of Festival collections produced by the same entity. Adobe also came and made an educational short about the students’ work with Elements.

Where could middle school and secondary school librarians take your ideas?

I consider these concepts relevant for any age range—the teaching materials and processes are more sophisticated, but the literacy concepts and skills remain the same. For example, I am presently engaged in creating a multidisciplinary, online version of the Chasing Vermeer project described on pages 89-93 for a middle school in Florida. I am also contributing to collaboration between a high school and a historical museum in Georgia, in which students write and produce digital versions of their stories of immigrants to the United States. The same principles of visual literacy and 21st century learning skills described in Engaging the Eye Generation are at work in these learning initiatives.

I hope you all enjoyed the book and that it sparked some creativity and new ideas to teach visual literacy at your schools.

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