Integrating Visual Literacy

Today's digital natives are driving the move toward visual information.

From its enviable perch atop a hill in San Francisco's Pacific Heights, Convent of the Sacred Heart High School for girls overlooks the city's Marina district and the encircling bay that bustles with ferries, freighters, and the occasional cruise ship. Inside the old mansion's walls, just over 200 students are interacting with technology in a way that Computer Science Chair Tracy Sena describes as "increasingly seamless and student-driven."

Internet-enabled Palm handhelds are the centerpiece of the school's four-year academic program that integrates a broad range of technologies into all curriculum areas. Incoming freshmen are each issued the latest Palm, and via a WideRay beaming station they begin their high school careers with an efficient, 21st century organization tool. Each day they download school-posted content, including homework assignments, testing schedules, sports updates, and various announcements.

Sena, who has been an educator for 24 years, remarks on the extent to which technology now comes naturally to students. "We handed out the Palms to the freshmen this year, and within 30 minutes, with no instruction from me, they'd configured their e-mail and were sending messages to each other." Students love the time-saving and flexible learning Palms allow, often using the graffiti option to complete written assignments from the bus on the way to a game, for example, and e-mailing them directly to their teachers.

A major influence this generation of high school digital natives has had on the curriculum is their natural focus on visuals to convey information. "The girls are very creative when it comes to film and photo," says Sena. The school makes both digital still and video cameras from Canon and Olympus available for students to checkout, but as digital age denizens, it also comes naturally for the girls to use their Palms or even individual cell phones to incorporate visuals into class projects.

In Spanish class, for instance, students enjoy writing and filming their own telenovelas, imaginative subtitled spoofs on Spanish television soap operas. They work in teams shooting on location around town, staging action scenes in a local bowling alley or cafe, for instance, or choosing a behind-the-wheel close-up of an actor confessing secrets to a camera set in the car passenger seat while driving across town.

Other video projects include original commercials for a media literacy unit, creating a game show to review vocabulary for a language class, and documenting field trips, such as one the seniors took to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland last year.

Journaling is required in almost every subject at Sacred Heart, and students quickly become adept at finding accompanying images on the Internet or while out around the city. When reading Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club in an English class, for instance, they visited Chinatown to take photos of the different shops, restaurants, and parks Tan wrote about, and then added these images to entries written in Word, AppleWorks, or other word processing programs. Many of the students use Adobe's InDesign to keep all their journals because the application makes it easier to turn them into booklets.

Sacred Heart has found that mixing the digital and traditional — sometimes in unexpected ways — can motivate and enhance quality. Sacred Heart's award-winning school newspaper, the broadview, has jazzed up its historical format via imaginative design, layout, and illustration. With a combination of InDesign, scanned pen-and-ink drawings from the art department, manipulation of color spots, and high-quality writing, of course — as Sena hastens to point out — students have created an appealing, cutting-edge product their peers are excited to read. Also central to the publishing process is e-mail, which the educator describes as a lifeline when both she and student staff are proofing last-minute drafts of the paper from home, often late at night.

Teleconferencing is also integrated into the classroom and relations among school, home, and the community. Sena is currently exploring how to use Apple's iChat conferencing application to work collaboratively with another high school's newspaper class located down the peninsula in Palo Alto. Apple's newest operating system allows for as many as four videoconferencing windows to be open simultaneously, so that if students are having problems with implementing InDesign, they can alert Sena and through the iMac's built-in cameras, she'll be able to see their screens and walk them through their problem.

The school also began using iChat's videoconferencing capability at a recent open house, where parents gathered in the school's theater for a big-screen live chat with a Sacred Heart alumna at her new college. The school simply shipped an iChat-configured laptop to the college instead of using a videoconferencing service, which comes with a hefty fee, as they had in the past.

Susan McLester is editor in chief of T&L.

Creating a Visual Classroom

Fourteen tips about how to inject visual information into any curriculum area as excerpted from the Tech Forum handout, "Visual Literacy and 21st Century Skills." For additional information, visit

1. Use single images as writing prompts for creative writing, or for image analysis. Some great sources of appropriate imagery are Flickr and the National Archives.

2. Use Google Earth or geotagged Flickr imagery as data sources for geography lessons.

3. Build VisualQuests with, with visual information contained in the online lesson representing a data source that is used to answer an essential question.

4. Have students build presentations using only visual images-no text is allowed except on the title slide.

5. Build digital stories with the latest versions of iMovie, Photo Story, Movie Maker, Pinnacle Studio, or Digital Storyteller.

6. Teach students about intellectual property rights by designing lessons that utilize Creative Commons ( licensed imagery.

7. Evaluate the authenticity of visual information.

8. Use Inspiration or an online tool such as Gliffy ( to diagram concepts or storyboard.

9. Use tools from to promote critical thinking, such as the Seeing Reason Tool (for cause and effect) and the Visual Ranking Tool (analysis and prioritization of information).

10. Build teacher presentations in PowerPoint or at

11. Use Flickr as a repository for student or school imagery and project work.

12. Analyze imagery or illustrate writing using Flickr.

13. Create virtual field trips and visual arguments in science class with Flickr.

14. Use online video editors such as eyespo and VideoEgg.

— David Jakes and Joe Brennan