Visual Essay: Classroom Application

In a stack of papers called Instruction.

  • Nov
  • 15
  • 2007

Before we arrived at the visual essay, we read a few texts and talked about ideas. We gathered quotations, listened to music, I drew pictures, it was a great time. Here’s what we did:

The Handouts

  • Emerson: from “The American Scholar” (Word) (PDF)
  • Bloom: “Why Read?” (Word) (PDF)
  • Target notes (Word) (PDF)
  • Essay assignment (Word) (PDF)

Spend some time on those first two. I must admit that two weeks on Emerson lead to no time at all to discuss Bloom. Ten days of a certain discussion format didn’t set students up to go through more of the same for a second text. Next year, I’ll be sure to give each author their own discussion, mixing up the way we move through these ideas. After working with these texts in four classes each day, I’ve got the Emerson talks down pat. Bottom line: I need to plan more about how I guide the class through these texts, but the conversation we had was effective.

The target notes provide a good scaffold for students to place quotations on the outside ring, their own interpretation in the center ring, and the author’s name in the middle. Students labeled the three areas of that organizer Reading/Books, Influence/Inspiration, and School, since those are the topics I wanted them to focus on. I periodically assigned that quotations be filled in, but I now realize I never checked that into the gradebook. I only assessed it indirectly by an open-note, in-class writing that required quotations as evidence. I need to remedy that.

The essay assignment is fairly straightforward, particularly after all this time we’ve spent discussing the big ideas here. It’s only a three-paragraph piece, so I’m hoping that will flow freely from most students. We will set a due date on Monday.


Emerson inevitably leads to a conversation about the difference between influence and inspiration. No dictionaries are allowed here as a way to later show Emerson’s view of inspiration. Influence would be students regurgitating what a dictionary says.

We talk about this by listening to Danger Mouse, The Beatles, and Jay-Z. The Grey Album is a mix of The White Album and The Black Album. I believe that no sounds came from anywhere other than those two sources. Was Danger Mouse influenced or inspired?

If I rearrange all the words from chapter one of The Great Gatsby into brand new sentences that tell the exact same story, is that influence or inspiration? How is any of this different than what Danger Mouse and thousands of other DJs do? This conversation takes about one day at the conclusion of discussing Emerson.

Editing Them Down

Now that we’ve talked about the texts, we need to distill them into just the essence. Boil Bloom down to eight quotations, Emerson down to five. By keeping a handle on what’s important, students have created more manageable texts, something especially important in what’s to come. This takes about two days. It can be done as a culminating activity after talking about the texts or it could be an introduction to the discussion of each author, so students come ready to discuss their understanding of the main ideas.

The Visual Essay

The projector blasted that text on the wall during the first few days and I kept repeating requirements as I paced around the room (“Thirty words per slide?” “No, thirty words maximum total. Only ten words per slide.” “So we have to use thirty words?” “No, that’s the maximum you’re allowed. The same message expressed in fewer words is almost always a good thing, though.”). Students had access to that page on the class Web site and we spent four days working on this in class, about thirty minutes each day. Today ended our in-class work and tomorrow we debrief.

Before we jumped onto the computers, though, we looked at a few examples in order to define this thing called the Visual Essay. This is already getting too long, so I’ll break down the intro in another entry. That’s also where I’ll write about how we debriefed all this. Should be a cool way of doing it, actually, so I’m looking forward to writing about that this weekend.

1 comment

1. dy/dan » Blog Archive » Your Weekend Reading List says:

[11/18/2007 - 1:08 pm]

[…] Todd Seal has his kids working with visual essays, which is also awesome. … which is kind of an awful title when you think about it. I mean, don’t we want to oust the right teachers. [back] […]