In Part One of my Arts Integration series I introduced what is arts integration.  In Part Two, we will dive into Visual Text.  We will answer the following questions:
  1. What is visual literacy?
  2. How do we observe and describe visual text?
  3. How do we make sense of and connect to visual text?

What is Visual Literacy? 

When Common Core came into practice, visual literacy was a term many teachers were not familiar with.  Yet, it cropped up in many standards.  For example: 
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
Edutopia blogger and assistant editor Todd Findley defines visual literacy in simple terms: It's how we teach kids to think about and think through pictures.

How do we observe and describe visual text?

A Honolulu Museum of Art docent once told me she on average witnesses museum patrons looking at a piece of art for seconds before moving on to the next piece.  I get that - the museum is a big place.  There is a lot to see.  But what if our eyes were trained to look longer and closer at certain art that caught our fancy? I think we would notice more and appreciate more about the art.  I saw that even with art that I didn't like at first glance, once I spent some time with it and noticed more and more, it started to grow on me and I liked it more.  

The key to looking at art is to actually look at it.  Set a timer for 1 minute.  It will seem like eternity, but keep looking.  Notice the details.  When you think you've seen enough, look again.  Look closer.  Look for more.  Ask yourself "What else?" In the arts integration world, this process is called Observe.  The first step to looking at art is actually looking at it and noticing all the details.  

The next step is to Describe.  This is where you will verbally talk about what you see.  In the first PD I took about this process in 2014, we viewed the painting "Lei Sellers".  Hearing others' descriptions helped me see things differently.  The painting is a bit abstract and I did not know what was in the background.  After hearing another teacher say he saw a white boat, the painting made a lot more sense to me.  It was a cruise ship and the woman and girl were selling lei to the tourists who arrived by boat. My mother in law had told me a story about her first visit to Hawaii was by boat from California when she was a teenager.  She told me it was a rough ride across the Pacific and it took several days.  Once I knew the painting had a boat, I could start to make deeper connections and form a deeper understanding of what was going on.  

Lei Sellers by Juliette May Fraser, 1941
Oil on canvas, 26 x 18 in. 

With young children, typically we first focus on quantity, size, and color of the subjects in the painting.  This helps them know what to look for and know how to describe what they see.  In the case with the Lei Sellers, I could say "I see one large, white boat in the top left background. I see four people.  Three are facing the front and one is facing the back."  This would get us started noticing and describing.

 How do we make sense of and connect to visual text? 

The next step is to Interpret.  This is where students make inferences.  Kids are good at inferences, but we have to make sure they are grounded in evidence.  In close reading, students make claims based on text evidence.  In visual thinking, they make claims based on visual evidence.  Look at the Lei Sellers painting again.  "I think the girl is bored of waiting for the ship to come to port because she is standing with one knee popped and she is staring at her hands.  When I stand like that, I'm waiting in line at the grocery store or post office.  I'm really bored when I stand like that." Notice how I made an inference of how the subject of the painting is feeling based on what I see in the painting and also on my own experiences.  One very important phrase you will repeat over and over while interpreting paintings is "What do you see that makes you say that?"

The last step in the ODIC process is Connect.  This is the part where I would share the story that my mother in law told me about going to Hawaii in a ship when she was a teenager.  We could talk about how we can sometimes hear cruise ship horns when we are close to the harbor, or see them tendered off shore in Lahaina.  Students might talk about their parents taking a cruise in the Caribbean or Alaska, or how they have been in a boat before.  Students might make connections to selling things.  Some students might sell Girl Scout cookies or fundraising items for sports teams.  The connect section is a great way to create deeper understandings of art because we have experienced some part of it ourselves. 

Another C is Create and we do that with drama.  That is another post entirely ;)


Honolulu Museum of Art Teacher Resources - they will only send posters to teachers in Hawaii schools, but you can download them and print them out or project them for your students to view. 

Example video of ODIC - see students from my school walk through the process on our morning Keiki Honu News.

My first visit to the museum - read about my first visit to the art museum in an old post.

Reading Portraiture Guide from the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery - they have other fabulous teacher resources, as well!

See Melanie Rick, from Focus 5 Consulting, talk about the process of reading art, from Any Given Child Sarasota - they have a great IG account, too!

Bring high quality arts integration professional development to your school! The teaching artists at Focus 5 Consulting lead my favorite workshops to attend! Talk to your administrator about bringing them to your school.  They travel all over the US!

Want to give the ODIC technique a try? Gather up some art - it doesn't need to be printed, you can show your students PowerPoint slides if printing is an issue.  Then download my updated ODIC posters to help you guide your students through the process.  I promise, your students will surprise you with their descriptions, inferences, and connections.  This will probably become your new favorite way to introduce and connect topics to art.  It's definitely my favorite!
Click image to download