The title of this essay came to me from one of my students, who was passing along a comment made by one of her middle-graders. It gave me an idea. Here’s the background: this semester I am teaching an online course, “Nonfiction for the Common Core,” to MLIS students at Rutgers University. We spend one early week on visual literacy, considering images, rendered or photographed, in nonfiction books. While many future children’s librarians have learned about the interplay of art, text, and design in picture books, few have thought about how the same elements work in nonfiction. It’s important to train their eyes to see the decisions that go into every piece of art used in a nonfiction title, and how those images flow with the text.
To begin, I ask my students to read the essay Matt Tavares wrote for The Horn Book (March/April, 2011). In that article, Tavares outlines the choices and the research involved in illustrating nonfiction. Following a discussion about the essay, my students examine the visual narratives of various series and trade nonfiction books and consider the decisions that were made about the images on each page and spread. As a final exercise, each person posts an image to share with the class, explains what he or she sees in it, and opens up the discussion/viewing/analysis to the other students. One participant selected a vivid rendering of a T-Rex and Triceratops running as their world was erupting into chaos. She asked whether that was a plausible scene, and mentioned a patron’s expressed annoyance at having to look at drawings of dinosaurs–rather than photos.
Her question made me think of a great little game you might try in your library. Each week pin up a picture and hold a contest and challenge students to tell you what’s wrong–or right–with the image. In other words, they would have to examine a painting, drawing, or photo and find sources to establish that it is, or is not, plausible.
This is as pure Common Core as you can get–it would require students to study the picture’s details, provide evidence to support or contest the particulars, and present an argument. The images could range from those speculative dinosaurs running from a scene blazing with erupting volcanoes to a genre painting of the first Thanksgiving to a screen capture of the latest cat video gone viral. Indeed, it won’t even be necessary to have explored every picture yourself. As your classroom investigators get better at examining images and mining evidence, they may discover things you never noticed.
Way back when I was a child watching black-and-white TV, channel 13 (WNET) in New York televised a program in which an object was brought out and a panel of experts tried to determine what it was, who made it, and in what era it was produced. The show was about expertise and seeing into the past. And that is what I imagine this visual detective game could be–a way to sharpen the eyes and insights of your students, one image at a time. A weekly challenge with or without rounds, grade pitted against grade, and leading up to a grand prize, now that’s a game I’d love to play.
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