How To: Teach Visual Research in Middle School (Pt. 1)

I had no idea that we were kicking off the Year of the Monkey until I stumbled on the extraordinary display that's currently installed in the Bellagio Conservatory. Whipping out my iPhone to capture the moment, I was struck by how unified the entire design scheme was -- how tightly the horticulturalists and set/lighting technicians had collaborated to create this East Asian wonderland.

After I stopped salivating into the koi pond, I started thinking about the work that my seventh graders have been doing in theater class. Every student has been assigned to a specific "job" (sets, costumes, lighting, sound, make-up/hair) and a specific scene in a Shakespeare adaptation. (We use the 30-Minute Shakespeare adaptations, which are the perfect length for a once-a-week class of middle school students.) This ensures that everyone has a design task that will be challenging -- but that won't become overwhelming.

However, meting out scenes to different groups of students can create problems. The biggest one is that the scenes look as if they're all coming from different plays. There's no single unifying "look," so you end up with a hodge-podge of different things that pre-teens like. (Like Oberon wearing Air Jordans.) Even when you give students a simple directorial concept (i.e. our production of A Midsummer Night's Dream will be staged on a playground), they come at it from all different angles, and the final product ends up being a multicolored, disjointed mess.

So I've learned to teach visual research.

Visual research days are my absolute favorite. Students grab a Chromebook from the cart at the back of the classroom, and then log into my account so that they can bypass the student web filter. (Yes, I provide them with all of my login information. No, I don't regret it.) We brainstorm a list of possible search terms based on our directorial concept. For instance:

The Taming of the Shrew
Directorial Concept: Comic Books/WWF Wrestling
- Wrestlemania
- Wrestling Costumes
- Wrestling Entrances
- Comic Book Art
- DC Comics
- Marvel Comics
- Roy Lichtenstein (okay, I gave them that one)
- Female Superheroes

. . . And the list goes on. Students are then given 20-30 minutes to look for images and save them to their desktop. During this time, I circulate and provide feedback on the work that they're doing. For instance, if Alejandro is looking up photographs of Sports Illustrated models and saying "That's Bianca!," I might challenge his choices by asking: "But what does that have to do with comic books or wrestling?" (Nothing, Alejandro. Adjust your search terms, please.) I also can steer them towards search terms that other students might not be using. If everyone's looking at screenshots from last year's Wrestlemania, then I might direct Jeneizy to start looking for female superheroes like Captain Marvel (circa 2012) or Starfire.

Once we've accumulated an assortment of images, students log in to our theater Dropbox (shared amongst all of the classes) and drag their images into their class folder. But that's only the first part of what needs to happen. Because once their work ends, my work (and the work of many student volunteers) begins. I "curate" the visual research, only printing out images that meet the basic criteria (i.e. WWF wrestling and comic books) and thus avoiding having to stick an image of Trollface on the Hamlet Victorian spiritualism wall. (There were actually three Trollface memes in this year's Hamlet research. I like to think that my students were making the astute observation that Hamlet spends five acts trolling the entire royal family of Denmark.) If the students have selected way too many images, the ones with similar color schemes make the final cut.

We then grab some scissors from the design closet and cut out all of the images. Then, one-by-one, they make their way up onto our classroom walls to form a mural that will remain there until the end of the school year. Or until students start doodling in the white spaces while waiting in line. Whichever comes first.

In Pt. 2: How students analyze their visual research

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