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#VisualLiteracies Through Instagram in the Primary Classroom

By Stephanie Branson
 | Apr 28, 2017
Boy and Girl at LaptopWhen I started teaching first grade, I used an old 35mm camera to capture daily experiences, document learning, and create materials for students. Eventually I learned to hand the camera over to my students to let them capture and share their learning experiences. But beyond some surface level conversations, I never spent much time focusing on the image as a text to be read and understood. As a novice teacher, I didn’t appreciate the importance of developing foundational visual literacy skills and dispositions.

National initiatives for education promote competence in understanding, evaluating, and using diverse media formats for teaching and learning. These initiatives recognize shifting literacies and the need to embrace digital and media practices in the classroom. As digital spaces continue to change, and as more young students participate in these spaces, visual literacy skills are becoming increasingly critical.

Visual literacy is the ability to recognize, understand, and interpret static and moving images and produce visual messages. Primary students are inundated throughout the day with visual messages, but how much time do we spend explicitly teaching them how to think about, analyze, and question the visuals they see? Visual literacy involves not only making factual observations, but also critically analyzing content, appreciating composition techniques, understanding the author’s intention, distinguishing points of view, identifying fake or misleading content, and recognizing the ability of visuals to influence and persuade.

Primary teachers can start developing visual literacy through the analysis of photographs and book illustrations. Online resources, such as the National Archives’ archives.gov, or the Annenberg Learner’s learner.org provide practical and systematic ideas for analyzing images and videos. Additional resources include CEO of Southwest Educational Consultants Frank Serafini’s resource analysis guides, The New York Times online column What’s Going on in This Picture and the Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies’ “Every Picture Has a Story” lesson plan.

The next step is for students to create and analyze their own visuals. When I was teaching, I quickly discovered that photography was more powerful when I put the camera into the hands of my young students. I noticed them talking differently about the shots they composed and the strategies they were using to choose pictures for projects. As the years went on, I found new tools and ways of engaging my students with visual literacies. Instagram became a particularly useful platform to have students compose their own digital photo or video for discussion. Asking my students to become both the creators and critical consumers of visuals led to deeper discussions, insights, and connections to what they were exposed to online.

Below are a few ideas for incorporating different aspects of visual literacies across the curriculum using a tool such as Instagram. I chose ideas for a primary-grade classroom (K-6), but all ideas and questions can be adapted and modified to meet the needs of a secondary audience. Furthermore, in order to maintain confidentiality and protect students online, I would recommend a classroom Instagram account that is monitored and maintained by a teacher.

Vocabulary instruction: Give students a word of the week and have them search the school for visual representations of that word. They can post the image to a classroom Instagram page with an appropriate hashtag and brief caption, or create a GIF or Instagram boomerang video. Inspire other classrooms to upload their visuals as well and investigate the multiple representations and meanings of words. This is a great way to encourage and develop different perspectives, explore visual relevancy, and study social media behaviors. Questions might address angles, lighting, composition, setting, movement, filters, and focus.

Visual and embodied storytelling: Using the collage feature, have students tell a story in four frames or recreate the plot of a story visually (bodies, illustrations, still animation). Ask readers to interpret and retell the story in the comments. Remove a picture or rearrange the images. How does the story change? As an alternative, ask students to create and post a tableau (living picture) as a single image. Dramatic tableau offers students a way to physically embody learning and explore content. Capturing the still image and posting online invites others to interpret the scene in the comments section. Questions might include: How do the interpretations differ from what you intended? How did your facial expressions and body positions tell the story or convey the message? In visual storytelling, students consider body movements, expression, background, camera angles, lighting, movement, objects, actors, and setting.

Book hooks & advertisements: Ask students to film or depict a scene from a book that will hook readers and leave them wanting more. As a culminating product, ask students to create an advertisement for a classroom event or concept. Challenge them to create a brief video clip in less than 60 seconds that conveys meaning about a favorite book or upcoming event. This task requires knowledge of audience, text comprehension, composition techniques, the art of persuasion, and the use of symbolism. Questions might include: Who is your intended audience? What persuasive techniques did you use? How did you frame the shot or choose the scene? If it was a book, why did you choose that part as the hook? For audience members, how did the hook move you? What captured your attention?

Capture science inquiry: Use photo blogging as a way to collect data for long-term investigations or capture science experiments. For example, students might track the growth of a plant over time, or changes in the sky at different points of the day. Questions could include: What’s the importance of lighting and camera angles? How does changing the position of the camera or point of the view impact data collection? How should we caption the images to accurately represent the investigation? Through Instagram, students will have a record of their experiments and a way to document growth, change, and unusual occurrences over time.

Create personal primary artifacts in social studies: Digital photography serves as a way to document a particular period of time. Students can create their own primary documents and track events that occur in the classroom and school across the year through images and captions. “Every Picture has a Story” is a great starting point for discussing primary artifacts and how they preserve moments in time. As students create their own primary artifacts, they are learning about historical context, evidence-based reasoning, and storytelling. Questions might include: Whose story is being told? How does body language and facial expressions impact the story? How might someone interpret your artifact ten years from now? How might your peers in the next classroom/school interpret your story? Students in older grades might discuss cultural differences in interpretations.

Create your own Fake News: In her blog post “Media Literacy is Critical,” Susan Luft describes the importance of developing critical literacy skills and ideas for integrating visual messages. Extending on her ideas, ask students to create two copies of an image they created, but with two different headlines (one true and one fake). Have the readers investigate the context and ask their peers questions like: How did you determine authenticity? What is misleading? What was the purpose of the fake news? Or, ask students to capture the image from two different angles. How does the angle change the context of the photo or tell a different story? What is our ethical responsibility? How do interpretations differ? 

These digital tools and social media apps create opportunities to involve students in visual literacy and social media practices that are ubiquitous in our digitally mediated world. As teachers, our job is to search for ways to bring students interests and tools into the classroom. Instagram and similar Web 2.0 tools are just another way to incorporate visual literacy into the curriculum.

Stephanie Branson HeadshotStephanie Branson is a PhD candidate at the University of South Florida, pursuing literacy studies and elementary education with a special focus on digital literacies and teacher development. Connect with her on Twitter to find upcoming literacy Instagram 

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