April 10 to April 16 on ReadWriteThink

NASA GOES-12 Full Disk view March 30, 2010It’s nearly Earth Day! Energize students about preserving the environment with eco-friendly classroom lessons and interactive games from Thinkfinity.org.

This week on ReadWriteThink, you can find more resources for Earth Day and other poetry activities, lesson plans, and calendar resources to support you. Have a great week!

New Resources

From the Calendar

Connecting with Other Teachers

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[Photo: NASA GOES-12 Full Disk view March 30, 2010 by NASA Goddard Photo and Video, on Flickr]

Text + Image = Tagxedo: The Next Generation of Word Cloud Fun

I’ve been a Wordle addict for a while. The online tool takes any text and creates a cloud of the words based on their frequency. It makes for some fun analysis activities that goes beyond the norm in the classroom.

When Obama was sworn in, Wordle addicts like me used the tool to analyze the inaugural address and to look back at the speeches of previous presidents. I even used Wordle to explore Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem.

Shakespeare's Sonnet 18Now this word cloud-driven analysis is ready to move to the next level with Tagxedo. Highlighted Friday as Jane‘s Pick of the Day, Tagxedo shapes your cloud of words into an image. To demonstrate, I used the text of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 and had Tagxedo arrange the words into a heart. Cute, no?

Tagxedo allows you to choose one of 42 included image shapes or upload your own image. Settings allow you to customize the colors, contrast, and other features of the resulting word cloud.

You an also exclude words, and customize the way that the text is handled (e.g., include or exclude numbers or punctuation). Like Wordle, Tagxedo allows you to save the resulting word clouds. You can place the image in the Tagxedo Gallery, create an embedded version you can use elsewhere, or simply save the image as a JPG or PNG.

The possible downside: The tool uses Microsoft’s Silverlight. I didn’t have Silverlight installed, and it managed to crash my machine once the installation completed and I tried to refresh the Tagxedo page. If you allow for that possible bump and can get Silverlight installed, however, you’ll have another option for playing with word clouds in the classroom.

The Black Cat by Edgar Allan PoeThe benefit of Tagxedo in the classroom is its stronger connection to visual rhetoric. Word clouds emphasize the words that are used most frequently in a text. Taken out of their context, key words stand out and readers can think about how they may work as symbols, establish a mood, or build an image.

Tagxedo word clouds allow students to pair that kind of textual analysis with an image that extends the emphasis the words communicate. Consider the image on the left. I took the text of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat.” Click on the cat image to see a larger version. If you have Silverlight installed, you can go to the Tagxedo site to see the Silverlight version, which enlarges the words in the image when you mouse over them.

To make the image, I had Tagxedo focus on the top 150 words. I chose the cat shape, which is one of Tagxedo’s included images, and then I changed the colors to get the strong contrast I wanted. I love the way this cat image includes the words cat, wall, myself, and animal in the center of the image, and the stark black and white contrast makes the cat image really stand out.

Now imagine students applying this same tool to texts you explore in class. The process is fairly simple:

  1. Choose a text. You might have students analyze a full chapter of a work, a short story, several poems by a single poet, or an essay. The text might come from an author in their textbooks or it could be their own work. Project Gutenberg can make the process for many out of copyright text as simple as copy and paste.
    The Tagxedo developers also have the ability to point to an HTML page and are working on the capability to use a Twitter feed or search results.
  2. Choose an image. There are 42 images included in Tagxedo. Students can also use their own images. Designs with a clear two-color appearance will work best. Simpler designs probably work best. A detailed image of a colorful garden is not going to work as well picture of a single flower.
  3. Enter the information in Tagxedo. Use the various tools in the left panel to customize the results. Make sure students know how to save the image so that they can share it with the class or turn it in.

Simple and fun, Tagxedo takes word clouds beyond simple rectangles and asks students to do a bit more critical thinking than Wordle word clouds do. There’s still a place for Wordle in the classroom, but Tagxedo adds another level to the designs that deepen students’ critical thinking—and can create some nice posters for the class bulletin boards and websites!

Designing an Image to Represent a Character

Ten Street SignTara Seale posted details on a fun visual rhetoric and writing activity she recently used with students on the NCTE Secondary Section Blog. The activity, inspired by a similar task described by Shelbie Witte, asks students to design and explain a tattoo for a character from Romeo and Juliet. The blog entry includes links to the assignment sheet, the rubric, a sample essay, and a number of sample tattoo designs.

Connecting to Other Literary Tattoos

The assignment can be easily linked to one of the Literary Lists of “Ten Best” from the UK newspaper The Guardian, which I wrote about earlier this month.

Share Ten of the best tattoos in literature with students, or a few of the items listed in The Guardian article with students to get them warmed up. They may know of other literary tattoos to add to the list. This evening, I happened to remember Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo. Surely that’s a worthy patch of ink to add.

Other Assignment Possibilities

Naturally, the assignment could be completed for any work of literature. No reason you have to stick to Romeo and Juliet. Nor do you have to stick with characters from a work of literature. What about tattoos for some of the authors you’ve read in class?

If tattoo design isn’t appropriate for the students you teach, just modify the activity. Witte‘s original activity described the tattoos as a mind of modern family crest. Just have students design crests if tattoos would cause uncomfortable conversations with family or administrators.

If you still want the modern-day edge to the activity, have students design a personal logo or icon for a character. Ask students to think of the kind of image someone might post in place of a photo on a Facebook profile or a similar website.

In terms of publication, you can follow Seale‘s technique and have students submit images and an essay, but if you have the resources available, you can try a more technological bent:

  • Students might create Powerpoint presentations that layer the different portions of the image together and include text or audio explanations of the items. For instance, for the image in the photo above, the presentation might start with the basic outline of the heart, then shade red, add the flame, and finally add the dagger—each on a separate slide.
  • Using basic mouseover Javascript and pop-ups, students might make a webpage which features the image and explains the reason behind different aspects of the design when the viewer drags the mouse over them.
  • Use an image maps with alt text, but the length of students’ explanations would be quite limited. Javascript pop-ups would give them more room.
  • Publish the designs on Flickr and have students use the “Add Note” feature to identify specific portions of the image and then include related explanations.

No matter what option you choose, the assignment pairs visual aspects with critical thinking and communication. It’s a fun activity that can be used with students from kindergarten to college. Just adjust the requirements to fit students’ abilities and the pedagogical goals of the class.

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by Mykl Roventine]