On Teaching a Genre You Know Nothing About (or: an Infographic Study!)

Sometimes, no matter how good our routine, we need to shake it up. This is true in exercise; our muscles and our minds need to be surprised occasionally with a new move in order to achieve maximum results. It’s also true in writing.  And it’s true in teaching. Sometimes the very thing we need to wake up and recharge our teacher brain is to try something new, experimental, and a little bit unknown.

When my seniors recently finished studying the poetry of Wilfred Owen, none of us could face another essay, no matter how authentic or rooted in the real world of writing. They needed something else — something to re-ignite their brains, something to force new synapses to fire, something to nudge them to view literature with fresh eyes.

So, rather than writing a big paper, I assigned a genre I had never taught and knew little about — infographics!

There are so many good reasons to try infographics — they are beautiful, accessible, offer great opportunities for collaborative work, access different parts of our students’ brains. Best of all, infographic are a very authentic product of real world design and writing. As my students said, “Oh, these are everywhere!”  And they are! Open up a new tab, search “Infographics”, and you’ll see oodles.

But this was pretty terrifying to me. I am neither artistic nor extremely visual. I have no graphic design experience, and although I can tell you when an infographic is attractive and clear, I don’t really know how to define those things or tell students how to achieve them. Allison has bravely taught infographics before, so I relied heavily on her wisdom and pep talks to get me through.

Even with Allison’s help and advice, I was still nervous. Nervous like I used to be before every writing study. Nervous like I used to be before I even jumped into writing workshop — what if students asked me questions I couldn’t answer? What if I couldn’t help them? What if the products were disastrous?

Here’s what I decided: to approach the study with honesty and optimism. I confessed to my students that I didn’t know a lot about creating infographics, but we would figure it out together.

The Assignment

Work alone or with a partner to create an infographic studying any element of Wilfred Owen’s work.

Yep. It was that simple. I wanted my students to have as many choices as possible, and I didn’t want their creativity to be limited by rules. Most importantly, I wanted my students to go deep into the poetry in a way that would be meaningful to them. And that mean relinquishing control.

Mentor Texts

Screen Shot 2016-03-19 at 9.11.46 PM.pngAllison found this amazing book at the library: Infographic Guide to Literature. While, as always, I aimed to show students a lot of variety in mentor texts in order to expand their sense of possibility, it seemed important this time for their mentor texts to show a response to literature. Students were already reach far outside their comfort zone to create infographics.

I also gave students far more mentor texts than normal — seven (Here they are!) ! I wanted to give them mentors for content as well as mentors for form. Almost all of them came from Infographic Guide to Literature, while one gorgeous infographic of Bob Dylan’s “vanities” came from Vanity Fair (Below) .Screen Shot 2016-03-19 at 9.15.49 PM.png

The Lessons

I didn’t teach mini-lessons this time around. Allison had made two incredible digital lessons for our Reading Writing Workshop 9 students that I borrowed (stole) for my Screen Shot 2016-03-19 at 3.06.45 PM.pngseniors: (Free) Infographic Tools  (Right) and Infographic Design Basics.  These seemed to be sufficient whole-class instruction to give my students what they needed to get started.

Instead of spending time teaching lessons, I spent far more time conferring. Students found a greater need to talk things out — to doodle, run it past me, get back to the drawing board. In all of our writing studies this year, I spent the most time conferring in this unit. I usually didn’t have “the answer” — most often, the student and I sat together, talked, looked at the draft together to see what was working and what wasn’t, talked some more, and made a plan of action.

The Results

Delightfully, students took this assignment in a million different directions. Some studied an element of a single poem, while others studied groups of poems. Some tended to look at techniques while others considered themes.

While my less-visually-minded students were often frustrated by their imperfect results, students almost unanimously reported that they enjoyed thinking about poetry in a different way and that they learned as much about Wilfred Owen’s poetry as they would have writing a polished paper. Here are some examples of my students’ work along with an excerpt of their reflections on the process:

Cam

Screen Shot 2016-03-19 at 9.54.16 PM.pngI am very visually-minded and find infographics to be a nice blend of aesthetically pleasing and effective in communicating information, thus making them fun to view as well as create. I think the process was similar in that, like a standard analytical essay, all of the different details that went into creating the final product needed to be considered in order to most effectively communicate my claim. I had to consider the colors, fonts, icons, etc. in the same way I would consider structuring a sentence or certain word choice in a sentence in an analytical essay. It was also similar in that once I chose a “thesis”, I really just kind of ran with it and found ways to make it work. Bringing a visual element to the analysis was definitely really different than the normal process, but I found that it was a lot easier to come up with ways to eloquently express an idea with this visual element as images can often be so much more comprehensible than writing.

Emma

I know that seems obvious, but I was very surprised to find that creating an infographic Screen Shot 2016-03-19 at 9.55.08 PM.pngrequires just as much planning, structure and research as an analytical paper. Infographics often look basic; however, creating one absolutely requires just as much analyzing as writing a paper! When it comes to things that make the two different, I actually think that although both require analyzing, creating an infographic requires more of a holistic understanding because instead of just writing about it, you also have to display the information. In a way, I thought that this was harder (but more fun:).

Mike & Claire

Screen Shot 2016-03-19 at 9.55.56 PM.png I realized that within the line of work I want to pursue, infographics could come in handy a great deal.  I want to work in international relations, and in many issues of international human rights, equations are used to quantify quality of life, equality, access to education, etc.  I could create a color coded infographic of one of these values in reference to multiple countries rather than just making a table. – Claire

It is similar to writing an essay because you still need a claim and supporting evidence, the difference with an infographic is that you just have to showcase the evidence rather than explain it and analyze it. This is a double-edged sword though, because though it is nice to not have to analyze the evidence, you have to then have more evidence then you might otherwise as to make your point very clear. – Mike

The Verdict

I loved this experience. This study jolted all of us awake. It turns out that I don’t need to be a genre expert in order to have a successful writing unit. Because, after all, writing workshop doesn’t depend much on me at all. That’s the point, right?

I found out that, as usual, the most I trust my students, the more pleasantly surprised I am by their work. With all of the pieces in place — a little bit of instruction, awesome mentor texts, flexibility in the product, and time to work in class — students produced gorgeous infographics.

Some students created amazing pieces. Others didn’t. And even those who didn’t had a productive experience of thinking more critically about Wilfred Owen’s work, which, ultimately, is the goal of any summative writing assessment. This study also highlighted the fact that a student’s “best draft” only has to be that — the best one of their bunch. The goal isn’t for each piece a student writes to be magazine-ready. The goal is for them to try. To think. To push the boundaries of what they could do before. If the product is perfect, great. And if it’s not, that can be great, too.

This was good for us — all of us. Will I be tackling infographics again? Absolutely.

Have you tried infographics as a writing study with your students? How did it go? What mentor texts did you use? How could you envision using this in your class? Leave me a comment below, find us on Facebook, or find me on Twitter @rebekahodell1. 

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18 thoughts on “On Teaching a Genre You Know Nothing About (or: an Infographic Study!)

  1. Thanks so much for this! Can you make the mentor text document (the one with the actual models) available again? I think you actually included the reflection question prompt instead of the samples.

  2. I am stoked to see what my seniors can do with this. I’ve got to make a decision soon, but I’ll either have them go the literary route with their reading workshop books, or allow them to have some fun with a pop culture interest. Without a doubt, I know they’re going to love this.

    I’m also wondering if the other document will be available, of if I should start to work on making my own.

  3. Have you ever negotiated curriculum with your writers? Students choose the unit of study and establish the assessments with you. This is a great way to make a genre new to you work for everyone. Students research the genre, agreeing to find and read a certain amount agreed upon by all; they might present their findings to the group; a final writing project modeled on the genre is always expected, but they may ask for quizzes or scaffolded assessments along the way. My favorite experiences have been with memoir and cookbooks. (Really. Best unit ever. The kids decided to include interviews with relatives in their class cookbooks. We had guest speakers, including local chefs and a Baltimore Sun food critic/columninst.) I am always pleasantly surprised by how rigorous the kids made their negotiated units. It seems to me that this infographic unit would lend itself to this approach.

  4. wow, wow, wow. I know my next unit. This is fabulous. I teach a composition class and we’ve written narratives, persuasive essays, and more…this seems like just the thing we need to mix things up as we move into spring and the home stretch of high school for my seniors! Thank you!

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