Visual Literacy

I was reading a piece online by Martin Scorcese on Teaching Visual Literacy and I have to admit I started it a bit reluctantly thinking that visual literacy was going to be just a fancy way of saying watching movies in class. Foolish me. I should trust Marty.

Not that I'm opposed to movies in class. I got a M.A. in media and I taught film and video courses for a good number of years and showed plenty of movies. It's so tempting to hrness the storytelling power of Hollywood to motivate, inspire, and educate students.

Scorcese was talking in the interview about The Story of Movies. It's a program designed to teach students how to "read" the visual language of film. It's a project of IBM, Trner Classic Movies and the Film Foundation, established in 1990 by Scorcese and fellow film directors Woody Allen, Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Stanley Kubrick, George Lucas, Sydney Pollack, Robert Redford, and Steven Spielberg. Quite a group.

The Story of Movies curriculum is available free to teachers and is intended for use in middle school classrooms. So far it includes 3 classics: To Kill A Mockingbird, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, The Day The Earth Stood Still and a film lesson library with problem-solving activities on things like interpreting a documentary film.

But it's more than just showing movies in class. Scorcese gets at some of it:

One of the things that steered me in the direction of visual storytelling was the fact that I come from a working-class family. My mother and father weren't well educated. They were second-generation Italian American. There was no tradition of reading in the house, no books. Of course I read in school.

I loved books. But it took me years to really learn how to read a book -- in other words, how to live with the book, how to read a few pages, savor it, go back to it. I was much more open to whatever visual codes were hidden in films. What I mean by that is the storytelling of cinema through the use of the camera and the use of light, actors, and dialogue -- all the literature of the screenplay translated through the images.

My K12 student experiences with film were like Scorcese's - we didn't see many feature films - mostly educational shorts - and there certainly was no attempt at teaching any kind of visual literacy.

Students today see a lot more media in and out of school but I don't think much more time is spent addresing how ideas and emotions are expressed visually films and videos. How many people are teaching the vocabulary and the grammar of film?

The grammar is panning left and right, tracking in or out, booming up or down, intercutting shots, lighting, the use of a close-up as opposed to a medium shot -- those types of things -- and how you use all these elements to make an emotional and psychological point to an audience.

We have to teach our younger people how to use this very powerful tool. The world is now at the point where they are exposed to the visual language sooner than the verbal, and I think there's a danger of visual language having more of an effect on kids than it used to. We have to try to deal with this and teach them to interpret the power of visual language.

You have to make room for film in curriculum. What you are doing is training the eye and the heart of the student to look at film in a different way by asking questions and pointing to different ideas, different concepts. You're training them to think about a story that is told in visual terms in a different way, and to take it seriously.

To Kill A Mockinbird is a great film and just showing it to class probably has some value when done in conjunction with the reading and discussion of the novel, but there's so much more to be gained from studying the film.


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