Visualization of Literary Works as a Springboard to Writing

The course that my project focused on was ENFL-115-01 Literature & Writing for Foreign Students. Enrollment this semester was 20 students—10 first-year students, 6 sophomores (who had all taken ENFL-116 with me last spring semester), 3 junior transfer students, and 1 senior. All students are non-native speakers of English with a range of English language skill proficiencies in the advanced to near-native range. They are all matriculating students and are not enrolled in the Intensive English program. The class fulfills one of the undergraduate humanities requirements for non-native English speaking students for sophomores and above in Georgetown College, MSB, and NHS and fulfills the writing requirement for non-native English speaking first-year students in these schools.

The course this semester differed from previous iterations with the introduction of reflection and visualization steps in various writing assignments. The end products of the assignments were similar to what had been required of students in other semesters—that is, the writing of short 1-2 page and medium-length 4-6 page papers. What differed this semester was the process of focusing on the literature in a new way, the steps of using technology to identify literary elements, the collaborative sharing of images among students, and then the using of those visual images as a springboard into the writing of papers.

The students undertook a multi-step process between the reading of the literature and the drafting of their papers. After reading the assigned literary works, the students were asked to pinpoint descriptive words and phrases that they saw as representative of the qualities embodied by characters, the themes prevalent in the narrative, and/or the tone that prevailed in the work. Upon completion of the lists, the students shared those words and phrases within small groups of 3-4 other students. Then as groups, they searched for visual images that conveyed these characteristics through various websites. The images were pulled from a variety of genres ranging from historical archival collections, to impressionistic representations, to images from the world of art and theater. Through either PowerPoint or Prezi, the small groups then presented a visual portrait and/or visual story of the literary work to the rest of the class. Finally, each individual student “translated” the visual images back into words and incorporated the elements of the story or portrait into an academic analysis of the literary work. These steps were followed for 5 assignments; the 6th assignment was a final paper in which students followed the process independently and produced a 6-8 page critical literary analysis and were required to include the visuals that they compiled in the pre-writing process as well.

In conducting this project, I hoped to assist students in strengthening their academic writing skills in English while learning to interpret critically important works of American poetry, drama, and short fiction in a cultural and historical context. The aim of integrating technology in this class was to engage students in their reading and understanding of literary works through a process of visualization, collaboration, and reflection that would ultimately lead to their composing thoughtful critical essays and papers.

The use of technology in this new approach affected my students’ learning in a number of positive ways. In focusing on individual descriptive words and phrases, then visualizing what these words represented, the students became much more attentive to reading and observing with a critical eye than what I had observed in the past. The evidence of their understanding appeared in the choices they made in their visuals and the commentary they presented in the pre-writing stages. In addition, the collaborative exercises within small groups revealed that the students were beginning to build solid foundations for their subsequent written work. When they discussed the descriptors and then searched for visuals, the students displayed their discerning of nuance in the literary work as well as their own insightful interpretations. The presentations by the small groups to the whole class demonstrated a range of associations as well as shared perceptions that the students made about the literary works. The ultimate evidence that I saw was in the thoughtful observations and carefully developed written work that emerged in their papers -- most notably in the final independent papers that they produced at the end of the course.

One of the things that I learned from this project is that a focus on individual words and phrases then making connections with visual representations can help students grasp concepts in a fresh way. With my students in particular, the nuances of language need to be explored and comprehended in order for students to understand and appreciate literary works. The collaborative work that provided opportunities and visualization through images energized both my students and me. I felt that the class took on a dynamic element that I hadn’t experienced in the past. I truly enjoyed the innovative perspectives that the students contributed through their discussions and presentations. I learned that you can teach an old dog (me) new tricks and that students can form a strong foundation for insightful written work through visual means.