Mentor Text Wednesday: Infographic Rankings

Mentor Texts: Rolling Stone magazine’s Threat Assessment infographic

Entertainment Weekly magazine’s The Bullseye infographic

Writing Techniques:

  • Organizing information
  • Tone
  • Visual presentation

Background:

Hi. I’m Jay and I’m a recovering magazineaholic.

I’ve mentioned it here before, but magazines are wonderful things, especially for a mentor text based teacher. They contain, if you’re getting a variety of them, such diverse writing, both in form and focus that it can be quote overwhelming. Most of my magazines wind up making their way to my classroom, to be used as mentor texts, as well as research sources.

A neat thing has happened though, as many aspects of communication include visual literacy more frequently. Many of the features in a magazine are more familiar to people, and forms like the infographic have become more prevalent.

This works for me, because one of the things I love to do is to have students play with information, ideas and opinions. I frequently refer to what I call The Great Scale, the idea that everything is relative. When we’re researching or talking about social justice issues, I often use my white boards or bulletin boards to visually manipulate ideas and opinions, facilitating discussions about how we rank things.

int_bl_2010_sept_30_rolling_stone_picThe Threat Assessment infographic that Rolling Stone used to feature looks like my Great Scale. It ranks things happening in the world from worst to best, or in their words, from the things Against Us to the things For Us. Entertainment Weekly‘s The Bullseye works in a similar fashion, albeit with a pop culture focus and the target as a visual reference point. (I’ve included a recent Bullseye in .pdf format, but a Google image search yields oodles of ’em! Threat Assessment is a bit harder to come by, alas.)

Though these may seem kind of silly, the critical writing involved in their creation is what makes them seem so valuable to me.

How We Might Use These Texts:

Organizing Information – These infographics are literally the organization of information. This is an important academic skill. However, if we focus on organizing for impact, we may be doing our best work for our writers here.

In the discussion and planning stages, our writers, wither individually or as a group, will be setting parameters. How do we decide what words like “good” and “bad” represent withing the material we’re looking at? Is it like in Stone, where it’s based upon a fairly liberal political stance, and an idea of what is helping, or harming, society? Is it like in EW where judgement of the quality of entertainment is being passed? Are we ranking events in a novel? Are we judging poetry? Are we presenting material from our research to make clear our bias? These are important questions.

And the way this information is presented communicates a feeling or impression. Though many might feel that this kind of work “isn’t writing” they’d be wrong. True, there may be fewer words, but infographics are crafted to create and communicate feelings or impressions. Our writers will be crafting that impression through a focus on organization.

And of course, like any such pursuit, we’d hope this focus on the impact of organization would transfer to other writing.

Tone – In creating an impression, tone is key. In Threat Assessment, the writers let their bias show. The Bullseye is undeniably snarky. Humour is used in both of these mentor texts, though it wouldn’t be necessary. There is great potential for meaningful conversations with our writers about the tone they want to communicate in working with this form.

Whatever the tone is, the brevity of the explanatory statements in the piece makes this an interesting exercise. Often, we would ask students to take an item, or two, from what they’re ranking, and discuss them at length. Generally, they’re working with something from one of the extreme ends of the spectrum. Nailing down a core idea, or rationale, and expressing it with tone seems like a pretty valuable exercise doesn’t it?

Visual Presentation – I try to work with the visual channel as much as possible. We live in what is largely a visually oriented world, so it’s important.

Also important is doing good work that looks good. It may seem like a simple statement, but ironically, it seems that even though they have all kinds of technological aids, many of our writers submit pieces that aren’t as aesthetically pleasing as they could be.

Those two reasons make working with infographics like these an important exercise. As a visually driven piece of writing, these pieces need to look good to work. Unlike, say, an essay, that they just type and hand in, they need to make aesthetic choices. They need to consider images that communicate their message and tone. They need to edit the piece to look good. We can have valuable conversations about what that means in this piece, and hopefully, move those concepts and ideas over to other forms of writing, and consider layout, how things “work” visually.

Again, in a visually driven world, aesthetic presentation is important. Using mentor texts to discuss what good visual pieces look like is important. It’s also an “in” to some of the digital citizenship pieces, such as citing visual sources. And, if all else fails, we have a visual model that proves that “cut and paste” at the last minute and hoping for the best results in a crappy product. If we’re lucky, the word will get out, and we can save teachers from the written equivalent.

I write this as I recover from semester’s end, and the marking of a bunch of multigenre projects about social justice topics. This would have worked very well in those. I’m planning some work with a course next semester around monsters, and ranking them on some sort of scale. Again, these mentor texts may serve us well.

However, I like them because they’re fun. They look easy, and interesting. It won’t be until we actually get into the creating of them that students will realize that they’re actually kind of challenging, and require critical thought and consideration. Not that our goal as teachers is to trick students into doing things that are good for them, but if we can find engaging ways to get them to explore ideas and skills, well, that’s a win isn’t it. I see this as one of those wins.

These are the ranking infographics I know – what have you got? What other applications can you see for a visual ranking piece?

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy

–Jay

 

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