language, graphic design and meaning

As English teachers, we usually focus on the text, the words themselves, and leave the graphic design to the art classes. But can't graphic design create meaning as well as the words themselves?

I'm starting a new role at school as accreditation coordinator. We will have our accreditation done by several bodies at the same time in 2014, and we are starting the lengthy process now. For the ECIS accreditation, the school's mission statement is a significant benchmark. The idea is that the mission statement ought to influence everything we do, defining our relationships within the school community and focusing our decision-making as an institution. 

With that in mind, I went to find the school mission statement. (You may detect a problem already.) It's easily found, although not prominently displayed, on the school's website:
Our mission is to provide excellence in education through a caring and diverse environment that encourages the holistic development of each student. We provide students with the means to succeed in a challenging world.
You may now detect a second problem. These two sentences are unlikely to inspire anyone. There are some good concepts there, but they are buried in some almost hilarious jargon. It hardly rolls off the tongue or springs to mind when doing unit planning, discussing student behavior or really any other time. A committee of teachers, parents and students wrote it a few years ago, and it reflects some strains in the community at the time. The teachers involved in the process admit that it was a semantic battle to get everyone's ideas about education crammed in there, and that's obvious.

When we started looking at this, there was an idea that we should scrap this mission statement and do something simpler and more direct. Indeed, our school slogan, 'Each one is unique,' defines the culture of school fairly well, and we refer to it often. And while I'm open to the idea of re-visiting the mission statement and being innovative about it, we don't really have time for that process at this point. We'll have to live with the thing as it is.

I thought it might be possible to use graphic design to draw out the significant concepts. I started playing with the text, talked to a few people who have worked with design (including my wife), and this is what I came up with:
My goal was to isolate the significant concepts from the semantic filling, to get some clarity out of the confusion. It's not perfect: 'holistic' isn't the greatest word, for instance. Some might argue that those five concepts are vague and open to interpretation, but I think that's a strength. What does it mean to be successful? How would we express diversity? How can we look at each student rather than the entire student body? These are great questions that we should be debating and returning to constantly. 

Of course there is a value judgement here, and it would be interesting to see how different members of the community would do the same project. Somehow there is even something subversive here as I promote some concepts ('each student') and downgrade others ('excellence in education,' 'a challenging world').

I informally shared it with a few teachers and most of my students last week, and they were enthusiastic; today the curriculum leadership team approved it for printing and distribution.

To me, this is the power of design: the content has remained the same, but the arrangement of the words on a page has created new meaning. Not only do I want to do this more and better for my students, I want my students to experiment with it themselves. 


tension in texts

by SPIngram http://www.flickr.com/photos/simon_ingram/6301872610/in/photostream/
I want to give students more freedom to develop their own readings of texts (both literary and otherwise), but I also want them to reach deeper into those texts, and they seem to need a fair amount of guidance to do that. What I've been looking for is a concept that will invite them to look more closely at a text and think of the questions that will drive them beyond the superficial.

I thought of this one day as I gave some grade 10s a quick look at this:
You Fit Into Me by Margaret Atwood
You fit into me
like a hook into an eye
a fish hook
an open eye
They laughed and thought it was interesting, but had trouble explaining why. Their language of literary analysis didn't explain it adequately. What makes this interesting? Yes, there is a surprise, but the real issue is the tension between the first reading and the second -- the opposition between the ideas developed with the ironic rewriting of the metaphor.

I believe that tension is at the root of all good art, either at the level of technique or theme. It might take the form of an internal conflict for a protagonist, pushing the plot along, but it can also be tension in contrasting images, paradoxes, foils, ironic narrative voices, and the list goes on. Many times, a piece of literature has several layers of tension, and the attempt to identify them and try to explain them leads to a deeper, more nuanced and more critical analysis of a text.

Case in point: my Language and Literature students have been working on advertising and marketing, and many of them did the analysis of an ad or other type of branding (website, packaging) as a practice for the 'final' oral. They enjoyed doing this, and they produced quite good explorations of the ads. However, I felt that they could have gone deeper, and we talked about the concept of tension in advertising: that ads often present images and language that involve tension between the values they are expressing. Take this Nike ad for instance:

The written text offers a sort of manifesto that seems to be about empowerment and the rejection of the objectification of women. On the other hand, the image is of just a body part, and the student correctly identified that as objectifying the woman, disembodying the complete woman. However, she was unable to do anything with that fact and just let it be. In the second round, after looking at tension as an element of the ad, the student determined that Nike was having its cake and eating it too: they focus on a body part and let the skin speak for itself without the distraction of an actual person, which sells the product (look at the logo placement) -- and at the same time they claim to be a champion of female empowerment. And students found this again and again: in Pepsi's claim to be diverse, a hair dye's claim to be natural yet exciting, and even President Obama's desire to be an average American and at the same time a massively successful Harvard graduate.

Tension has become a basic part of my class's conversations about texts: poems, ads, films, novels, and blog posts. As students go through the elements of a text, when they've exhausted their list of techniques and features, we always ask the question of tension, and it challenges them to reach a little deeper into the text and get a sense of what is driving the text forward or making it more interesting. It requires some real critical thinking, and while I won't be giving them any answers, it is a tool to help them reach deeper into a text.