Teaching Visual Literacy

“Amistad,” “Glory,” “Do the Right Thing,” “Dances with Wolves.” These film titles are synonymous with Hollywood success. But for Laura Weiss Zlogar ’73 they are a tremendous, untapped resource for teachers.

An English professor at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, Laura has turned her interest in film into a national seminar. Along with colleague Carole Gerster, she co-directed the second National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute, “Picturing America’s Diversity: Cinematic Representations of America’s Ethnic Minorities.” Their goal was teaching high school teachers how to use film to enhance learning, and to teach teachers and students alike how to read and critique film just as they would the printed word.

In 1996 Laura and Gerster submitted a proposal to the NEH to host a regional institute to help high school teachers devise curricula for their classrooms that would use documentaries and feature films as texts. That institute has grown into the national event, which they will host again next summer.

The institute ran for five weeks. The first week they discussed multicultural literacy, media and visual literacy, and basic film techniques. The remaining four weeks they focused on the four underrepresented ethnic minority groups in America: African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Native-Americans, and Latinos/as. Each week they showed numerous films that can be used in the classroom to teach about racial stereotypes, political policies, popular culture, and film adaptations of literary works.

Hollywood films are a good way to show how popular culture views minority groups and their role in society. “Look at ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’,” Laura says. “Mickey Rooney’s role is such an insulting stereotype of an Asian person. We also watched excerpts of at least eight film versions of ‘Huck Finn’ to see how the relationship between Jim and Huck has evolved over 80 years. Early versions do, in fact, show Jim as the ‘minstrel’ figure that Jane Smiley recently accused Twain of creating. But the novel and later films show us a much more complex Jim.”

Laura also emphasizes the importance and usefulness of documentaries, especially in the Asian-American and Native-American cultures. These films give a voice to otherwise unheard minority groups and allow students to see firsthand accounts of the struggles they face.

Another seminar goal is helping teachers train their students to critique what they watch. Laura says students need to understand how images are created, how they affect us and how we can “read” them, or else the images manipulate them. “Most teachers have not been taught how to teach images. Visual literacy is not a part of most teacher-preparation curricula. And it must be. We need students to be active interpreters of film, not passive recipients of whatever Hollywood puts in front of them.” Students must be careful viewers as well as careful readers.

Laura teaches courses in American ethnic women writers and African-American literature as well as British literature, humanities, and writing. After graduating from Westmont, she received her Ph.D. from Marquette University before moving to Wisconsin.

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