Sunday, July 8, 2007

Visual Literacy! (Students from Missouri, the SHOW-ME State)

The Eye Generation Prefers Not to Read All About It

Students in Film Class a Microcosm of a Visually Oriented Culture

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 6, 2007; C02

The breaking point for Perry Schwartz comes on Day 5 of the American Film Institute's three-week Summer Movie Production Workshop. Schwartz, a professor of theater and film at Montgomery College in Takoma Park and director of the AFI film course, is helping students envision the movie they are making together.

They sit in folding chairs in the college's Black Box Theatre and speak in strictly visual terms, citing specific actors and moments in cinema.

"He's more like Jack Black."

"That happens in 'Space Jam'!"

Of the 10 students, one is 40 years old; the rest are college age or younger.

Schwartz is describing how the two main characters in the student film will sit on a couch, simultaneously reach for popcorn and inadvertently touch hands, when Kit Reiner of Silver Spring and Max Simon of Potomac -- both 18 -- cry out, "Just like in 'Lady and the Tramp'!"

And Schwartz could take it no more. "Stop!" he yells.

"Try to think less about which movie scene you are reminded of and more about the way people really act in real life. Everything isn't related to a movie!"


To most of the workshop students, life has become totally visual. They are members of not so much the Me Generation as the Eye Generation.

"I really don't like reading a story. I like seeing it," says workshop student Craig Patterson, 17, of Grove City, Ohio. "I almost always prefer the movie version of a book. Movies can capture the beauty of an image more than books can."

Cecile Guillemin, a 17-year-old workshop participant who is in her last year at Lycee Rochambeau, the French International School, says, "I don't have time to read books. I am inspired by books to do movies."

* * *

Scene 1: Cut to Perry Schwartz, a bearded professorial type in his mid-60s, telling the students of his own background. He stands on a dark stage under bright lights. He has taught at Montgomery College since 1978. His focus has been live theater. He has made several short films, he says, including one based on "Our Little Trip," a play by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

When Schwartz mentions the beat poet, the camera closes in on students' faces. They are blank. Not one has heard of Ferlinghetti. Schwartz sighs.

* * *

It's no surprise that television, movies and video games have changed the way many absorb information. Now teachers are trying to harness that energy of the eye. This visually oriented generation "acquires much more of their knowledge -- some studies estimate that acquisition as 50 percent -- from visual texts" than from written sources, says Kathy Krauth, who is working on the Visualizing Cultures project at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology.

Therefore, she says, the Eye Generation "feels more comfortable expressing themselves in visual form."

Examples are endless. Vacation snapshots, collegians-gone-wild party pix and everything else go straight to a handycam or cellphone camera to the Internet. Today's job seekers post video résumés at In a Democratic debate this month and a September Republican debate, voters will be able to upload YouTube videos of themselves asking the candidates questions.

Through YouTubing, Facebooking, MySpacing and myriad other ways, people take in vast amounts of visual information. But do they always comprehend the meaning of what they see?

That's the problem, says Krauth, who lives in Tokyo and teaches at the American School in Japan. Students are taught how to read and how to react critically to literature, but not about visual images.

Because visual literacy is not required in schools, she says, "this generation's ability to assign meaning to the visual texts of others is passive and still needs a great deal more work. They are easily manipulated as students, consumers and citizens."

In other words, students today need to be taught, through images, how to think critically.

* * *

Scene 2: The students, sitting in a semicircle, are asked to name their favorite movies. They rattle off "Apocalypse Now" and "Psycho" and "Raging Bull."

"The Incredibles," says Kit Reiner.

"Pirates of the Caribbean," says Craig Patterson. "One."

* * *

In an e-mail, Krauth says the problem of visual illiteracy will be solved only "when being visually literate becomes central to current discussions and definitions of the literate individual in modern society."

Teachers must understand that students in the 21st century are receiving the bulk of their information through images, she says, and they must teach students how to be decisive and discerning about the images they see. "We should lean into the reality of this generation," she says, "and construct meaningful lessons using visuals."

And that's what Schwartz is trying to do: give meaningful literary lessons to his students using visuals. Over the nine or so years that he has been involved with the course, the students get younger and they come with more experience. This is the youngest class he has seen. Several have taken film classes at other schools.

In Schwartz's class, everyone comes up with an idea for a movie. Then they vote on the best one. This time, the only suggestion with a clear beginning, middle and end comes from the 40-year-old, David Hevey, who teaches middle school in Singapore. He suggests a story about a man with halitosis. After the plot is established, each student writes and directs one scene of the collaborative movie. They take turns performing other sundry tasks -- assisting with the camera, monitoring the sound, holding the boom microphone, making sure everybody is fed and watered.

For the major jobs, Schwartz brings in a couple of pros. Aerial Longmire, who handles the camera, is a star graduate of Schwartz's film courses. She works at Retirement Living Television Network in Columbia. Abba Shapiro, who helps the students with scripts and editing, trains people to use Apple's digital editing software.

Working sometimes 10 hours a day, students -- who paid $2,000 for the course -- write the movie, cast it, shoot it, edit it and gather to watch it at the end of the class; the film will be shown, free to the public, on Monday at 5 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring.

* * *

Scene 3: Schwartz hunches over a box of photographs -- publicity pictures of actors being considered by the class for the four main characters in its movie, "Scent of Love." This is the way the casting process begins. Schwartz faces the students and flashes about 200 pictures of professional actors. He waves each picture in front of the class, pausing only a few seconds. Amazingly, the students seem to remember every face that blurs past.

"We've already seen him," somebody says, after whizzing through scores and scores of portraits.

"We said no to her," says someone else.

* * *

Loanne Snavely, a librarian at Penn State, was on a panel at this summer's gathering of the American Library Association in Washington titled: "Eye to I: Visual Literacy Meets Information Literacy." She and other librarians discussed "the connections between visual and information literacies." They exhorted colleagues to get "beyond traditional literacy; you know, reading and writing."

Like Kathy Krauth, Snavely believes that visual education should be expanded and enhanced. Textual information, Snavely says, has been the primary focus of libraries in the past, but with "so much graphical communication integrated into the huge wave of social networking our culture is experiencing, we need to broaden our focus to include images of all kinds." * * *

Scene 4: Schwartz leaves the moviemaking students alone in the classroom for a while. They talk about "Lord of the Flies" as they wait for the teacher's return.

"Piggy died," says Max Simon.

"Spoiler alert," Kit says.

Now they don't have to read the book, someone says.

"It was a book?" asks someone else. Fade to black.

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