BP’s Unintended Lesson on Visual Rhetoric

Altered BP HIVE Center Photo by BP AmericaIt’s politically correct to be disappointed with BP and their little oil well problem in the Gulf. But how can I be angry when they provide me with such wonderful gifts?

First, BP America digitally enhanced some of their oil spill clean-up photos. The images are great for pointing out the sloppiness of the Photoshop work and, more importantly, discussing the ethical issues related to tampering with the images. Be sure to look at the face-saving explanation BP has posted with the BP Altered Images Flickr set. Any class exploring visual rhetoric should spend time with these photos. So a big thank you to BP for classroom material.

But that’s not all. Next, the folks over at Wired took the faked BP images and challenged readers to create their own digitally altered photos. The results are marvelous. Everything from Godzilla to Rick Astley is out there in the Gulf causing mayhem.

The submission showing pop culture images on the different monitors is probably my favorite:

BP Multiple-Monitor Pop Culture from Wired

How could you NOT like an image that includes Max Headroom, War Games, Star Trek, Poltergeist, and The Matrix?

As part of a visual rhetoric lesson plan, the Wired challenge images open up the topic of satire and parody. Students can discuss how the different images critique the way BP has handled the oil spill—both in its actual clean-up and in the images they have shared with the public.

So politically correct or not, I’m a little thankful to BP America for providing me with the materials for a timely lesson on an important topic.

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by BP America]

Classroom Activities Using Twitter

Sending Twitter Message by Cell Phone Image by rockinfreeSince Twitter is a communications tool, there are infinite ways to use the site in the English classroom.

These two excellent videos provide introductions to using Twitter with students that are polished enough to share at staff meetings and professional development sessions:

  • The Twitter Experiment – UT Dallas is one of the first stories of a teacher using Twitter in the classroom to hit wide distribution . The YouTube video includes discussion and feedback from Dr. Monica Rankin and students in her history class. Rankin’s focus is on increasing discussion and class participation.
  • Twitter in the Classroom? shares details on a partnership between University of Minnesota and Roosevelt High School to use Twitter to communicate and engage students.

In addition to giving students some basic tutorials and guides, it’s useful to go over the information from College Student’s Guide: Twitter 101. The page shares advice on how to make choices wisely so that students are taken seriously when they use Twitter as part of their classes.

For some more concrete classroom activities, look at Twitter Resources for the Classroom and Ten Ways to Use Twitter with Colleagues, both from Bedford Bits.

You’ll also find useful examples in these articles:

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by rockinfree]

Résumés That Stand Out the Right Way

Catwoman being interviewed photo by Alaskan DudeThere are right ways to dress for a job interview. Sure, you want to stand out to an extent. You don’t want to blend into the sea of suits that march before the hiring committee. But, um, you don’t want to stand out for the wrong reasons. Probably shouldn’t wear a catwoman costume to an interview for at an engineering firm.

The same advice applies to résumés. When I talk about résumés with students, I do encourage them to do things that will make themselves stand out a little.

Traditional résumés can get very boring when you’re reading through a stack of 20 or 30 of them. If students can make themselves stand out, they have a better chance of being noticed–and we all know that being noticed can lead to getting that job.

It’s just as important, though, to talk about how audience comes into play in preparing résumés. You can teach this lesson quickly and clearly with the Dzine blog collection of “27 Examples of Impressive Resume(CV) Designs,” which my friend @Alliegator8u found and shared.

  • Go over résumés as you normally would, exploring more traditional examples in your text or online.
  • Share the DZine collection of résumés with students and encourage general feedback and discussion. You can click on the résumés to see larger versions.
  • Once general discussion dies down, ask students to think about the jobs that they would apply for themselves. You might group students with like career goals for this project. Have students brainstorm some details about the positions and companies they will send resumes to. Emphasize that students are effectively completing an audience analysis for these companies.
  • Return to the DZine collection of résumés. With their audience analysis in mind, ask students to identify which of the résumés might stand out and still fit with the needs and expectations of the audience companies. Encourage students to read through the comments on the page for some interesting discussion as well.

It’s likely that some of the more intriguing DZine résumés will be inappropriate. While they are clever and eye-catching, most of the résumés are suited only for edgier graphic design positions and companies.

I don’t think I’d encourage MrSunnyBlack or Sofiane42 to send those résumés to a conservative company. But Kenji2030 and Kamilmytnik might have a reasonable mix of traditional elements and “wow” design that would let their résumés stand out without ending up in the decline pile. As the résumés should make clear to students, it’s all a matter of the audience the résumés are presented to.


[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by Alaskan Dude]

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]

A Year-End Activity with Literary Lists of “Ten Best”

Clock Showing Ten Minutes Till the HourThere’s not much time left in the school year, and you may find that students are uninterested in reviewing for final exams when they could be making plans for summer fun or a few days off between terms.

You can use the literary lists of “Ten Best” from the UK newspaper The Guardian as the basis of a student-driven exam review activity that can add a bit of fun and entertainment to the last days in the classroom.

If time is short, you can share a relevant list with a class and discuss the examples. Look for a list that fits the content the class has covered, or find one that lists a text that students have read during the course. If students have enough background in the area that list covers, you can discuss whether you’d change the list.

You can also ask students to extend one of the existing lists with something from a reading. Time may require that you narrow the options, so you can give students a list of several options from your readings and ask them to choose one or two to add to one of The Guardian lists. The lists on lotharios, monsters, and unrequited love are focused broadly enough that you’re bound to have read a text with some examples for at least one of the categories. If you’re teaching American literature, the list on American frontier would work well.

If time allows a more in-depth project, have students make their own lists, modeled on the examples from The Guardian:

  • Choose several literary lists and share them with the class.
  • Ask students to look at the both the things that are listed and the information included for each item on the lists (e.g., short plot summaries, descriptions of the relevant characters, and quotations). You might share the heroes from children’s fiction list and the books about war with students to demonstrate how images can be included.
  • Explain that students will make their own lists, using The Guardian lists as models.
  • Brainstorm some possible topics for class lists, based on the readings of the term. Encourage creativity. Maybe the class will come up with some options as unique as best tattoos or best pairs of glasses.
  • Narrow the list down to the topics that will work best for the class if desired.
  • Arrange students in groups. Have each group review the brainstormed options and decide on a topic to explore.
  • To ensure that everyone in the group contributes, ask each group member to find 3 to 5 items for the group topic as a homework activity. If desired, narrow the homework further by having each group member search through a different section of the class textbook or a different time period that you’ve covered (e.g., Student 1 takes readings from the 1700s, student 2 takes readings from the 1800s).
  • During the next class session, have group members share their suggestions and narrow their collection down to ten items. You might ask students to rank the items or announce that, like the lists from The Guardian, the order has no relevance.
  • Have groups add the appropriate details for the items on their list, following the models from The Guardian as a minimum requirement. If desired, groups might make their list more robust by adding images, sound effects, or music.
  • Ask students to prepare their lists to share with the class. Depending upon your classroom resources, you can have students read their lists, create overhead transparencies, posters, or Powerpoint presentations.
  • Once all the work is completed, have groups share their lists as a review of all you’ve read during the year.

The activity works well because students get lost in the task and forget that they are actively reviewing all their readings for the year. I’ve had students voluntarily reread texts to find evidence when they work on projects like this one.

Customize the activity as appropriate. If ten items seems too long, just adjust the number. “Five Best” would work just as well as ten. The number is fairly arbitrary. There’s nothing magical about the number ten after all.

Add a reflective piece, if you wish, by having students journal about why they have chosen the items they have (and why others have been discarded). While the examples all focus on literature, the activity could be adapted to other content areas. Students can gather the “Ten Best” scientific innovations they’ve learned about during the course, or they can list “Ten Best” historical documents for a history or social studies class.

Encourage more synthesis and analysis by asking students to rank the items on the lists. Groups might narrow their lists to the top three or four items. You can then set up voting that asks students to rank the top items. Take a look at Mother’s Day: 12 Of The Most Horrifying Mothers of Literature from The Huffington Post. Along with the list of moms and their descriptions, the article includes a poll that asks readers to rank the characters. The Huffington Post list may not be one that is appropriate to use in the classroom, but the online poll demonstrates one way you might invite students to vote (and it makes the results easy to tabulate).

Finally, you can tie the activity to the final exam for the course itself with these suggestions:

  • Give students a full list and ask them to narrow the list to the 3 or 4 best and to justify their opinions.
  • Have students take a list and draw conclusions about how the topic has been defined by your readings. Using an example list from The Guardian, for instance, you might ask, “What are the characteristics of a lothario, based on the characters listed as Ten of the best lotharios in literature?”
  • Ask students to transform one of the lists to an “Eleven Best” by adding an item to an existing list. Have them write an explanation of how the item would be appropriate.

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by cesarastudillo]

Bits Post: Using Current Events to Discuss Writing and Visual Rhetoric

Talking about Swine Flu at your school? The news stories and public documents give us current texts we can dissect for use of persuasive techniques and visual rhetoric. Combined with similar materials from the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918, current documents can give students the chance to consider how rhetorical techniques are adapted to fit the times. You can find links to texts on the flu and related classroom assignments in my Bedford Bits Post.