On Beyond Writer’s Block: A Graphic Story

By Mahmoud ShaltoutMahmoud teaches scientific thinking, public health and creativity to undergraduate students. A passionate comics fan as well as published comic artist, Mahmoud uses comics often in teaching and blogging. Mahmoud has lived in various places across the Middle East, and in the UK, so he’s basically a third culture kid. Mahmoud loves music, film and art. Tweet Mahmoud at @mac_toot

You can read and access the text of this graphic story here.

Mahmoud Shaltout: Writer's Block Page 1

Mahmoud Shaltout: Writer’s Block Page 1

Mahmoud Shaltout: Writer's Block Page 2

Mahmoud Shaltout: Writer’s Block Page 2

Mahmoud Shaltout: Writer's Block Page 3

Mahmoud Shaltout: Writer’s Block Page 3

Mahmoud Shaltout: Writer's Block Page 4

Mahmoud Shaltout: Writer’s Block Page 4

Mahmoud Shaltout: Writer's Block Page 5

Mahmoud Shaltout: Writer’s Block Page 5

An Inspiration: Make Writing … Digital

Either in a digital webcomic space (see this resource of various online comic creators), or at your table, with pencil and paper, sketch out a story in graphic form. Keep the art simple, if you need to. Stick people? They’re fine. As you draw and write, notice how the visual can help inform the written, and vice versa. What story can you tell?
We hope you will share your work across the various Digital Writing Month spaces that you inhabit. That could be right here at the Digital Writing Month blog; at your own blog or writing space; on Twitter with the #DigiWriMo hashtag; in the DigiWriMo Google Plus Community; at the DigiWriMo Facebook page; or wherever you find yourself writing digitally.

Between Words and Pictures Emerges the Shape of Ideas

By Nick Sousanis: Comics author and educator Nick Sousanis is currently a postdoctoral fellow in comics studies at the University of Calgary. He wrote and drew his entirely in comics form at Columbia University’s Teachers College, and Harvard University Press has since published it as Unflattening. www.spinweaveandcut.com Twitter: @nsousanis

The Shape of Our Thoughts

From Nick Sousanis: Spin, Weave and Cut

I want to share a quick few reflections on the particular way in which I see comics as a powerful way to express and organize our thinking. Defining this collection of practices we refer to as comics (or if you’re at the bookstore “graphic novels”) is a bit nebulous – and depends on who you ask. I think people are most familiar with the idea that pictures and words come together in a distinct way – and that as Marjane Satrapi, the author of Persepolis, suggests, as an author, she uses one mode when the other doesn’t work.

The most widespread definition of comics is Scott McCloud’s from his seminal 1993 comic on comics Understanding Comics, in which he calls them “juxtaposed pictorial or other images in deliberate sequence.” While this takes the emphasis away from word-image interaction, in considering comics a sequential art, they can be seen as a kind of picture-writing, a sequence of images read much as we read text.

I want to focus here on a different affordance of comics that I find perhaps most exciting about the form – that is the way that we do read comics sequentially, but also the way we view each panel, each page all-at-once as we do with visual art. I see the interaction of these dual modes in a single form – sequential reading and simultaneous viewing – as somewhat parallel to the way our thoughts themselves form. That is we are able to focus, stay on a linear task, step-by-step, but at the same time we are also present to reflections of past events even as we are contemplating the future. Even as we are plowing forward in time we are still aware of moments off to the side.

Comics handle these two distinct kinds of awarenesses particularly well. In comics, the parentheticals, the tangential and more straightforward exist together on the page. This affords a unique way to represent the complexity of our narratives and our thinking. And at the same time, I think as a maker of texts and images, it gives us this tremendous arsenal to find a way to contain our thoughts – we can as Satrapi said, move between words and pictures as it suits us, but we can also move between the linear and the not-so. In a way, I’m talking about comics here as somewhat akin to architecture – the way we move directly through the narrative and the alternate routes that are also available as we go. But of course, comics also offer all the ways that images can express things beyond the reach of text as well as being inherently multimodal – which includes the way that words become visual elements within the compositions. These are all of great significance to why comics are so cool – but that is a longer conversation.

Balanced Between Art and Language

From Nick Sousanis: Spin, Weave and Cut

I delved into some of this at length building off of that idea of what do our thoughts look like, what shape do they come in? (This was expanded on later in my dissertation, now book Unflattening.) As a creator, from the moment I start to formulate an idea, I try to get at what its shape would be. The form of the page and how I move the reader through it is essential all along. I don’t start with words or pictures first, I start with both, sketching and writing interchangeably as I set out to get a feel for this idea and how I can best make sense of it. (This is not necessarily typical of how comics are made. In mainstream comics – most frequently there is a writer who provides a script, which is then handed off to an artist who illustrates it. Even some authors who do both roles, may do the same. But my work is much less about narrative and more about finding ways to visualize and embody ideas.)

That play – and it really is play – with my sketches allows my visual system to become part of the conversation and make connections that I wouldn’t see if I were working in a different fashion. I find I’m always making discoveries in my own sketches that take me in directions in how I convey things and what I end up doing further research on than expected. Drawing becomes an active partner in thinking and my work is richer for it.

Spun and Interwoven

From Nick Sousanis: Spin, Weave and Cut

If I had to recommend a few books for people to start thinking about developing their own comics practice – they’d be things I use in my own teaching. There is the previously mentioned Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud – an indispensable guide to thinking about all that comics can do – though, as he says in the final pages – not the last word. Matt Madden’s 99 Ways to Tell a Story, is, as the name indicates, this curious book that tells a completely mundane story on a single page and then proceeds to do 98 different versions of it playing with form, style, genre, and more along the way. While it’s less of a theoretical book than McCloud’s, I think in seeing all these different exercises it really opens up the reader to how story can be approached through form and the tools comics offer in a brilliant way.

Cartoonist Lynda Barry’s recent Syllabus is a look at her class teaching drawing and comics to primarily non-drawers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and is much less concerned with form than the other two, but instead deeply concerned with reawakening that natural ability to express ourselves through drawing, through its very movement that all of us had as children. After that, I could list tons of books – but just a few: David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp (brilliant imagery and wonderful for thinking about multimodality), of course Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, David Small’s Stitches, perhaps some wordless comics like Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, Peter Kuper’s The System, or Sara Varon’s Robot Dreams, and really anything you can get your hands on and start thinking about all the decisions the authors made in organizing their narratives. I’ve compiled a ton of resources on my website under the education tab  (http://spinweaveandcut.com/education-home/) including recommended reading lists, articles, and my own course syllabi that should offer some good places to start.

An Inspiration: Make Writing … Digital

The exercise I’m sharing here for you at DigiWriMo to try your hand at is something I made up for my own classes and public talks – trying to find a way to get non-drawers to get a sense of how one might approach organizing stories and idea on a comics page, but very quickly and with zero experience required.

I call it Grids and Gestures, and basically it prompts the participant to consider the shape of their day (that day, a typical day, a particular day, whichever), and organize or carve up a single sheet of paper in some grid-like fashion ala comics that in some way represents the experiences that occurred during the day.

The “gestures” part asks them to inhabit this composition they have drawn with lines or marks that represent their emotional or physical activity. I explain it in greater detail and also lay out a bit more about comics theory in the writeup for the exercise. What I’ve found in doing this with all sorts of groups over the last several years is how it opens participants to thinking in different ways and how much they already know about drawing and working visually than they give themselves credit for. I’d love to see what people who try it come up with, and I’m planning to share student examples and others on my site sometime in the near future.

Grid and Gestures

Examples of Nick Sousanis activity: Grid and Gestures

(This collection of examples come from educators in the 2015 Making Learning Connected MOOC, where Nick led an online hangout of the Grids and Gestures activity)
We invite you to share out your work across the various Digital Writing Month spaces that you inhabit. That could be right here at the Digital Writing Month blog; at your own blog or writing space; on Twitter with the #digiwrimo hashtag; in the DigiWriMo Google Plus Community; at the DigiWriMo Facebook page; or wherever you find yourself writing digitally.


Navigating in the Age of Infographics

By Troy Hicks: Dr. Troy Hicks is a professor of English at Central Michigan University and focuses his work on the teaching of writing, literacy and technology, and teacher education and professional development. Hicks directs CMU’s Chippewa River Writing Project, a site of the National Writing Project, and he frequently conducts professional development workshops related to writing and technology. He blogs at Digital Writing, Digital Teaching, and he can be followed on Twitter @hickstro

Met Office Climate Data - Month by Month (January)

Flickr photo by blprnt_van http://flickr.com/photos/blprnt/4176305484 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

In their book, Everything’s an Argument, Andrea Lunsford, John Ruszkiewicz, and Keith Walters begin with the simple premise: “[O]ne Fact of contemporary life in the digital age: anyone, anywhere, with access to a smartphone, can mount an argument that can circle the globe in seconds” (5).

And, while the world we inhabit continues to take many sides on many issues, we also now have many new forms of media through which to present these arguments. And, yes, while some arguments can be shared through a Twitter message or a quick picture posted to Insta graph, one other form of argument that takes more time to compose, yet can be immediately understood, is the infographic.

Popularized most recently through the entertaining TED talks of Hans Rosling and his Gapminder project, infographics that once took a sophisticated knowledge of multiple programs in order to create can now be developed online with just a few clicks. Their popularity has only increased, according to Wikipedia, as “infographics are often shared between users of social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit.”

The first documented infographic was Charles Minard’s “Figurative Map of the successive losses in men of the French Army in the Russian campaign 1812-1813,” which skillfully outlined Napoleon’s march upon Russia, as well as his ultimate defeat. While many of us may not have the skills of Minard, more and more of us are now able to build infographics today with a number of digital writing tools including Piktochart, Infogram, and Easely.

We are always asking students to include details and examples in their work. Infographics can be powerful visual tools to be used as arguments for a number of reasons. But it isn’t all about going digital. As Master designer and scholar Edward Tufte notes,

I think there’s been – obviously, the digital world has opened up more possibilities with visualizations. But some of the most spectacular visualizations were done of all – in 1610 by Galileo, as he made these – made his remarkable discoveries. So visualization is timeless, and the principles for showing information – like nature’s laws – are timeless. So we can – I think I can learn more, a lot more sometimes, from 1610 and Galileo than I can learn from the last five years of looking at visualizations. (NPR, 1-18-13)

Thus, we want students to think about how visualization can lead to new ideas, furthering their own arguments with evidence. It can be powerful tools for expression, both personal and professional. Even though charts and graphs can sometimes be misleading — or, perhaps exactly because of this reason — we need to make sure that our students understand not only how to read charts, but also how to write them. The teaching of visual literacy has never been more important, in fact.

As this example from one of my CMU students majoring in education demonstrates, her personal passion to become a math teacher fits into a broader national agenda about the ways in which math education needs to empower girls.

Girls and Math

Infographic by Rachel Stelman

Here, Rachel Stelman uses data that she has found from national surveys as well as an interview that she has conducted with a CMU professor in order to paint a clear picture about the trends related to girls and the study of math.

Hers is just one of many ways in which the writer could compose in photographic to document the experience of women in mathematics and science. A quick search of Piktochart yielded another by Jillian Gaietto that includes much more detail and references. Clearly, infographics can work to augment or completely redefine the task of research and writing.

Visualising Your Thinking

flickr photo by mrkrndvs http://flickr.com/photos/aaron_davis/22431995235 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

An Inspiration: Make Writing … Digital

As you chart your course through Digital Writing Month, scale up your digital writing chops, raise the bar, and tackle the task of creating an infographic. Make an infographic that is a visual representation of some data points of your life … whether it be at your educational institution, the activities of your typical day, or something interesting discovered elsewhere.

What would that look like in visual form?

We hope you will share out your work across the various Digital Writing Month spaces that you inhabit. That could be right here at the Digital Writing Month blog; at your own blog or writing space; on Twitter with the #digiwrimo hashtag; in the DiGiWriMo Google Plus Community; at the DiGiWriMo Facebook page; or wherever you find yourself writing digitally.


Dust to Digits: Writing Our Stories Through Family Photographs

By Michelle Pacansky-Brock: Michelle, partners with her team at CSU Channel Islands to explore the impact of connected and humanized online and blended learning environments. Also known as @brocansky and the VoiceThread Goddess, Michelle is also currently working on the second edition of her book, Best Practices for Teaching with Emerging Technologies.

Great Grandmother

Image from by Michelle Pacansky-Brock


Each photograph is read as the private appearance of its referent: the age of Photography corresponds rather precisely to the explosion of the private into the public, or rather into the creation of new social value, which is the publicity of the private: the private is consumed as such, publicly.”  – Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, p. 98

When I was a little girl, my mother often shared her old family photographs with me. The photographs were stored in a tin trunk under my parents’ bed. Kneeling on the floor, pulling out that trunk, cracking it open, and unleashing the musty scent contained inside became our ritual for initiating our travel through time. My mom, a first-generation born American who was born to two German immigrants, would share stories about her family members.

Photographs were especially important to my mom, as she experienced the tragic loss of her sister and only sibling at the age of 39 and the sudden passing of her mother just two years later. Looking at and sharing stories about the images imprinted on the old torn piece of paper was — and still is — her way of visiting her loved ones. There was a palpable connection between my mom and the time and space of the fading figures portrayed in the images, it was as if the photographs had a magical ability to collapse time for her.

We repeated this tradition numerous times throughout my childhood, often with my two sisters. I also ventured into the tin box on my own sometimes, gazing into the fading eyes of relatives who I had never met. Over time, the photographs became familiar to me; yet, there was one that I secretly treasured more than the others. It was a small, sepia-toned image printed on cardstock (known as a carte de visite). It measured about 2” by 3”. The corners were torn and the surface of the image was heavily scratched. On the back, my mother had written the name of my maternal great grandmother in pen, but aside from that there were no identifying marks on the print.

Despite the ambiguity of the photograph’s context, this image resonated with me. “You are my great grandmother,” I used to think to myself, as if she were there in the room with me. My great grandmother lived in Germany until the age of 99 and passed away when I was quite young. I never met her. I would scour the surface of that image with my eyes, in a desperate quest to know her. I wanted so much to find that “something” that would transport me from the floor of my parents’ bedroom to that moment she stood in front of the camera’s lens.

Through this search, I recall admiring her appearance. I wondered if I’d be fortunate enough to grow into the beautiful woman she was. I would gaze at her dress and imagine what the fabric felt like and what color it was. I resented the scratches that removed the details of her face, as I believed that’s where her essence would be revealed to me. Yet, I never found what I searched for in that photograph.

A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).     -Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, pp. 26-27.

Postcard 1915

Image from by Michelle Pacansky-Brock

At some point through the years, however, my mother shared more about my great grandmother that transformed how I related to that photograph and, ultimately, how I understood myself. There was an old postcard mixed in with the photos in the trunk that had a message composed in hand-written script on the back, which I could not read — and neither could my mother. She explained that it was a postcard my great grandmother wrote to her husband (my great grandfather) during World War I, sometime after he left for battle. It was postmarked August 16, 1915. My mother also pointed out a phrase, written more rigidly in red ink in the blank space near the postmark stamp. One word was decipherable: “gefallen” with the date August 25, 1915 just below. Gefallen. The German word for “killed in action.”

I imagined my great grandmother writing that postcard by candlelight, after getting her five young daughters settled into bed for the night.  I imagined the care it took to write in such detailed, beautiful German script (known as Sütterlin). I imagined her taking the time to be sure the ink had dried. And I imagined her slipping the postcard into a cloth mailbag, picturing it arriving in her husband’s warm hands.

While I don’t know the details of how the situation actually occurred, I also imagined how she must have felt upon receiving the returned postcard, a love letter transformed into a death notice. I imagine how she went about her life after that moment. How that experience transformed her, made her reach inside and embrace the strength she didn’t know she had. I imagine how that strength was transferred to her five young daughters, now fatherless, in war-torn Germany. “War hero” meant something very different to me from that moment on.

After learning of that story, I never looked at the photograph of my great grandmother the same again. Her body, once a graceful representation of female beauty, conveyed power and pride. The scratches on the surface and the torn corners were less of a nuisance from that point. Instead, I related to them as footprints tracing a long, arduous journey. I wondered where the photograph had been and who had held it. I wondered about photographs that I didn’t have access to and others that were never taken.

But that wasn’t all that changed for me. I also began to relate to myself differently. As I grew up, I felt the strength of my great grandmother inside myself. Knowing her story and imagining what her life experiences were like empowered me to know I too was strong. I wasn’t just a “pretty little girl;” I was her great granddaughter. And my mother was her granddaughter. And my grandmother was one of those little girls tucked in bed as she wrote that postcard. While I have had many empowering experiences in my lifetime, this story opened a new way of understanding where I came from, who I was, and what I could do.  

Personal photographs are like treasures. They document our past and connect us with those who lived before us. However, the stories we associate with a photograph construct the way we relate to it and the way we remember and value the subject(s) rendered upon its surface.

In our digital age, any photograph — no matter how old — can become a liquid photograph, enabling us to share stories with the world through blog posts, like this one. This is an ideal strategy for engaging students in the process of writing, because the process of writing fades away and becomes invisible when our efforts are focused on sharing a story. Last year, I sent my online community college students on a “Photo Quest.” One of the topics from which they chose was titled, “Who am I?” This topic’s task was to excavate a story from their past through a conversation with a family member about an old photograph (an alternative topic was provided for students who did not have access to family photographs and/or family members). One of my students shared this story about a photograph of him and his sister, each clutching a toy. The photograph led to a conversation with his mom, which unearthed a story about his first day of kindergarten in Tijuana, Mexico. Before that Photo Quest, he had no memory of attending kindergarten in Mexico. That event was, as he wrote, “something that was just swept under the rug, not really a secret, but just never mentioned and eventually just forgotten.”

Connecting our formalized curriculum with our students’ real-world experiences is fundamental to ensure learning is relevant. Using old photographs to connect students with the past is not only a great strategy for engaging students, it’s also way to excavate the marginalized stories from the past that will otherwise be forgotten.

An Inspiration: Make Writing … Digital

Search around those old boxes or file cabinets, and dig out some old photographs. What stories simmer beneath the surface of the visual? What stories do they tell? What stories can you tell about the stories they tell? Consider perusing the United States Library of Congress collections of historical photographs, or find out if your own country of origin has its own collection. What do photos say about the country?

We hope you will share your work across the various Digital Writing Month spaces that you inhabit. That could be right here at the Digital Writing Month blog; at your own blog or writing space; on Twitter with the #DigiWriMo hashtag; in the DigiWriMo Google Plus Community; at the DigiWriMo Facebook page; or wherever you find yourself writing digitally.

Re-Imagining Oneself Through the Lens of the World

By Kim Douillard (@kd0602): Kim is a teacher-writer-blogger-photographer who also directs the San Diego Area Writing Project.  You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @kd0602 and on her blog at www.thinkingthroughmylens.wordpress.com 

Red Leaf

Image by Kim Douillard

A few years ago I noticed a colleague of mine taking photos with her iPhone. They weren’t the usual photos of a group of friends or of your cute child or even the requisite selfie to document a moment in time, instead, she took photos to a prompt…and posted them on Instagram. I was intrigued.

Photography was always something that interested me, but I simply couldn’t be bothered lugging around all that equipment, setting up for perfect shots…or even knowing what made a perfect shot. But with my phone (and camera) in my pocket, it was handy…and I was ready for a challenge.

So I found a photo-a-day challenge with daily prompts and set out to give it a try. Prompts like one, logo, spoon, and inside sparked my imagination and I started looking at my environment through different eyes.  I not only took at least a photo a day, I also posted at least one photo a day to my Instagram account (you can find me @kd0602). I took photos for a month, then a year…and now I continue to take and post photos regularly to Instagram. Somehow the more I took photos, the more I started thinking about the idea of blogging—an opportunity to write and share my writing in a public way.

When I started blogging in July of 2013, my goal was to write a blog post every day for 30 days.  I knew that was ambitious and I also knew that I needed to challenge myself and keep to it to create a sustainable habit.  Even as I picked a theme for my blog, I already knew that making a connection to my photography would motivate me.  I called my blog Thinking Through My Lens–a play on the double meaning of the camera lens and my own perspective on the world. (www.thinkingthroughmylens.wordpress.com). What I didn’t realize until I started to blog every day was the power that the images I was snapping would have to stimulate my writing and help me frame my thinking.  A yellow sign I photographed at a gelato shop featuring locally sourced ingredients became inspiration for a post about the importance of growing and valuing local leadership in writing projects and educational settings. Each image I took filled my head with language as I sorted through my thinking.

When I’m out viewing the world through my camera lens, I find myself thinking…about teaching, about life, about the world.  My photos stimulate my thinking and my thinking sets me out in search of images.  

Recently I was out in the mountains of Alabama, looking for the foliage that represents autumn in so many places–and that is mostly missing in my place (San Diego).  Although the unseasonably warm (high 70s) and cloudy weather made the colors less vibrant, I noticed trees of gold and some touches of red.  As I walked along some forest paths, I spied this brilliant red leaf among the brown, crunchy leaves and stooped to photograph it.

And as I look at it, I find myself composing the writing…about standing out in a crowd…about being different…about risk taking.  It’s not written yet, but it’s brewing.  I also found myself composing the photo, leaning in close to capture the details.  And then later, maybe I’ll crop it, moving the red leaf away from the center of the frame, add a filter to brighten the red and increase the contrast…  As with the writing, composing is a process and the framing, the editing, the balance of color and light all impact the ways the image will be read and understood.  The images speak to me…and I hope they also speak to others, telling them stories that are likely different from mine.

Some images capture moods…the quiet introspection of a traveler with pant legs rolled up and his feet in the surf,

Setting Sun

Image by Kim Douillard


or the somber quality of birds silhouetted in a tree on a cloudy day.


Birds in a Tree

Image by Kim Douillard

And sometimes when it seems that there is nothing interesting to see and photograph, I head outside and explore. I push myself to play and re-imagine possible images. On one of those days not so long ago I picked a dandelion from my front yard (those glorious weeds seem to bring out my playfulness—and oh, does my husband rue their existence in our lawn!) and wondered how to photograph it in a different way. I noticed my car in the driveway and considered how I might capture the image if I blew on the dandelion near the rear-view mirror, but I didn’t seem to have enough hands for that. But as I was contemplating that idea, I noticed the reflection of the dandelion in the paint of the car…and I started snapping. I continued my play with some apps…and created this image.

Dandelions Make Art

Image by Kim Douillard


And by embracing the ordinary, I experienced the exhilaration of exploration and play, which also led me to composing a teacher-artist manifesto using my photographs and my words to express the importance of play in the learning process.  You can see it here.

So what comes first?  The image or the words?  It’s that age-old chicken and egg dilemma…it all depends on how you look at it, and the particulars of any given situation.  And it seems to work that way for my students too.  Sometimes they have a full blown idea that appears in words on a page and other times they see something, maybe even something they have seen many times before, and the image inspires their thinking and words.  Even more fun happens when they start to really look closely at an image and they start to talk with each other and build on ideas presented by their classmates.  

An Inspiration: Make Writing … Digital

Head out with your camera in hand (the one on your phone or iPad or a “real” camera) and take a look up.  Let your camera lens give you “new eyes” on the sky and seek out the extraordinary in the ordinary around you.  Get low, find the light.  Tilt your lens up, try a new perspective.  Watch and wait, take more shots than you think you’ll need.  Then spend some time with your images, let your images release your imagination.  Let yourself soak in them, let them wash over you, splashing you with inspiration and wonder.  Then pick one.  You can let it speak for itself and post it naked.  Or you can let it whisper in your ear, guiding your words and your thoughts–framing an idea that you didn’t know you were ready for.  

For inspiration, we encourage you to add a photograph of your “sky” to a collaborative project we are calling “Our Eyes on the Skies” — which uses an open Google Slide format. To add yours, just take a photograph of your sky. Head to “Our Eyes on the Skies.” Grab a slide. Upload your picture and label it. We hope to create a rich visual documentation of the world above our heads. You are invited.

(Go to slideshow for collaboration)

We hope you will share out your visual work this week across the various Digital Writing Month spaces that you inhabit. That could be right here at the Digital Writing Month blog; at your own blog or writing space; on Twitter with the #digiwrimo hashtag; in the DiGiWriMo Google Plus Community; at the DiGiWriMo Facebook page; or wherever you find yourself writing digitally.


Visual Literacy: The Way We See The World

By Kevin Hodgson

Peephole - Jackie's eye

flickr photo Peephole shared by CVC_2K under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-ND ) license

I’ve been more acutely aware of the world of the hearing impaired this school year, as I have a sixth grade student with significant hearing loss. This student wears high-tech hearing aids and I wear a microphone clipped to my shirt during class. We pass another larger, portable microphone around the room as other students engage in conversations or answer questions. I’ve noticed that I need to be more attuned to my own teaching style this year: to slow down, to make sure everything is accessible as much as possible, to ensure he is actively engaged.

In helping me situate myself with understanding about the world of hearing impairment, I have been thinking about two particular books that I have read that use visual literacy in creative and effective ways and which have helped me to consider my current teaching practice with a hearing impaired student. To be sure, the idea of considering the visual in order to understand audio seems counter-intuitive, but both of these writers/illustrators do just that: they tap into one medium to explain another medium.

Images Help Us Understand

First, there is Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck. Now, if you don’t know much about Selznick’s style of writing novels in recent years, you need to realize that he is a master storyteller and a master illustrator, using detailed pencil line drawings. But Selznick views the world of illustration as more than just an add-on or companion to his writing. The pictures don’t complement the story. They are the story. In fact, in a short documentary I show my students, Selznick explains how he considering his sequences of illustrations (which sometimes run 15 to 20 pages or more with no text at all) to be “miniature silent movies” in the format of a book.

Selznick’s images are integral to his stories — and while this is very effective in his other books, such as The Invention of Hugo Cabret — in Wonderstruck, the illustrations do something magical all on their own: they tell the tale of a deaf girl through the use of only illustrations and no text at all. We are transported as readers into her audio-less world through Selznick’s artwork. If you want the full effect, go into a quiet room where you won’t be bothered for an hour or two, and read Wonderstruck. The balance between the text story (which tells of one character) and the visual story (which tells of another character), and how those stories come together like a tapestry, is proof of the magic of storytelling.

Second, I recently picked up El Deafo, a graphic autobiographical novel by CeCe Bell, which tells of her own hearing impairment as a child, and uses humor and compassion to show how difficult it can be to be different from other children. I was touched by the insights of young CeCe as she navigated both the world of the hearing impaired and the world of the hearing, and how often misunderstandings left her feeling isolated and alone in the world. The story is superb.

What I noticed most, however, is how Bell effectively utilizes the elements of graphic storytelling to bring the reader into the world of the deaf. In the story, young CeCe starts out with normal hearing, but childhood meningitis causes her to lose much of her hearing. How does she let the reader know that young CeCe is losing her hearing? By softly and slowly removing words from text bubbles … by using the visual of lost and fading speech to show the reader that CeCe’s world is in the midst of a profound shift.

As the book progresses, and CeCe uses a hearing device similar to what my student uses with me, the visual storytelling of speech bubbles gives us an indicate of what it must be like to “hear” when you are hearing impaired — the garbled speech, the reading of lips, the fluctuations of volume, the way that something simple like watching television is an act of concentration most of us never consider. Bell’s story and the use of the visual has given me a much broader comprehension of my own student’s world, and given me more ideas on how to make sure we connect and communicate and learn together.

What We Have In Store This Week

This week, for Digital Writing Month, we are focusing on the conceptual understandings of visual literacies, and digging into the ways in which technology and digital composition utilizes visual media for stories and information and more.

We hope you keep your eyes open. Pay attention to the ways photographs help tell a story. What do you notice when you click the button on your camera or phone, and capture a moment in time? Are you “composing” your shots with angles, and filters, and more?

We want you to be attuned to the way graphics tell the story of data and numbers, and to remind all of us to be wary of ways in which the visual might deliberately, or not-deliberately, inaccurately portray the data. How can we trust our own eyes in the world of graphs and maps and more? And we want you to think about storytelling shifts in a visual age, and how image partners with text, and maybe pushes stories to another level of thinking.

Our Guides On This Visual Adventure

Our guest writers this week, and the source for each post’s Daily Inspiration, include:

  • Kim Douillard, whose weekly call for images and photographs across teaching networks has inspired many of us to think visually about the world around us;
  • Michelle Pacansky-Brock, whose historical photos tell stories of personal and connected experiences;
  • Troy Hicks, whose look at how infographics shape our world of data will allow you to view information as readers and writers of the web;
  • Mahmoud Shaltout, who took a request for a piece of writing and used the experience for a graphic story;
  • And Nick Sousanis, whose work with graphic storytelling and comic literacies has us viewing the world deeper and more complexly connected than ever before, and whose “dissertation as graphic story” pushes the edges of what writing could look like in the world of Academia.

And you. You remain our guest writers each week, too. We invite you to open your eyes to possibilities this week and seek out the “visual” and share your own insights with Digital Writing Month companions.

How do you see the world? Open your eyes, and your lens, and join in. Get inspired.