JTE Interview: Promoting Visual Literacy in Elementary Social Studies

Have you seen the JTE Insider blog managed by the Journal of Teacher Education (JTE) editorial team? Check out the following interview with the authors of a recent article. This blog is available to the public, and AACTE members have free access to the articles themselves in the full JTE archives online – just log in with your AACTE profile here.

This interview features insights from the article “Seeing Is Believing: Promoting Visual Literacy in Elementary Social Studies,” by Kristy A. Brugar of the University of Oklahoma and Kathryn L. Roberts of Wayne State University (MI). The article, which appears in the May/June issue of JTE, is summarized in the following abstract:

This study addresses the following questions: Does professional development (PD) designed to meet third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade teachers’ pedagogical and content needs influence how teachers teach and engage with graphical devices found in social studies texts? If so, what effect does that instruction and engagement have on students’ comprehension of those devices and social studies reading materials that contain them? We worked with teachers and students in a context-embedded PD series that emphasized literacy skills specific to standards that address accessing and sharing information (Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts) as social studies specialists (e.g., historians, geographers, economists; C3 Framework), with a particular focus on the graphical devices commonly found in social studies instructional materials (i.e., captioned images, maps, tables, timelines). Using teacher interviews, curricular materials, field notes, and student pre- and post-assessments as data sources, we explain the impact of this intervention on teaching and learning.

Q: What motivated you to pursue this particular research topic?

Kathryn: I’ve actually been on this path for about the last 10 years, starting with a research project headed by Nell Duke, who was at Michigan State University at the time. In that early work, listening to children grapple with the visual content of texts was really eye-opening. I was surprised at their divergent interpretations, and it really made me think about the implications for learning that might be caused by even relatively minor misconceptions.

Kristy: Similar to Kate, this has been a long-standing area of interest of mine. As a classroom teacher I was very apt to use graphics/visuals, and my dissertation involved the ways in which fifth-grade students understand history through teachers’ uses of visual arts. The dissertation study left me wondering about the use of visuals by teachers and students beyond the visuals arts to include more informational graphics, like maps.

Kathryn: It was a happy coincidence that we were both hired and worked together at the same university for a few years and discovered our mutual interest.

Q: What were some difficulties you encountered with the research?

Kristy: For this research project, I think we were very fortunate to have found a school, and more importantly, an administrator who supported this work because it would be beneficial to her faculty and, in turn, the students. We wish we could thank her here publicly, but will refrain for confidentiality reasons. That being said, one difficulty we experienced was the time associated with social studies instruction in the school. Time was identified on each teacher’s daily and/or weekly schedules, but the realities of school (e.g., special assemblies, field trips) made it somewhat difficult to see consistent social studies instruction, especially at the end of the year. This isn’t a problem unique to this school.

Kathryn: Agreed. In fact, we later had to abandon a follow-up study to this study in another building because social studies ended up being removed from the curriculum entirely mid-study to give more time to tested subjects. We regrouped and carried on elsewhere, but it was a really sobering reminder of the uphill battle teachers sometimes face to carve out social studies instruction at all, let alone particular aspects of it. This is one of the reasons we focus so much on interdisciplinary instruction – it’s often much easier to negotiate space within literacy instruction.

Q: Writing, by necessity, requires leaving certain things on the cutting room floor. What didn’t make it into the article that you want to talk about?

Kathryn: That’s always the hardest part of writing; we always want to tell readers way more than any smart editor would ever allow. For this work, it was hard for us to leave out much of the data and discussion around our work with the students involved with the study and what we observed happening between the students and their teachers. We did share those things through other outlets, but it was hard to resist sharing it all in this article because we were so excited about what we were doing and seeing.

Kristy: I agree! Our excitement about this project, and our work in general, positions us to want to share everything at once with everyone, so we often need to take a step back and think about our audience. This is one of the great things about working collaboratively. As we were writing this piece, we kept one another “in check” and focused on the professional development aspects and work of the teacher participants.

Q: What current areas of research are you pursuing?

Kathryn: We’re a bit like kids in a candy shop because there is so much work left to be done in this area that it’s hard to choose where to start. We are currently looking at young readers’ thought processes as they read informational texts around social studies topics and attempt to answer questions about them with the idea that understanding development of graphical comprehension and common misconceptions can inform how we approach instruction. We’re also working with colleagues to start looking at comprehension and learning related to reading graphic novels.

Kristy: Both projects are pretty exciting and have allowed us to continue our interdisciplinary work in schools with students and teachers. Similar to this study, the graphic novel work has both teacher and student aspects. This medium has often been researched in terms of motivation and the work we are doing now extends the conversation to include comprehension, as Kate mentioned, in particular comprehension of historical content.

Q: What new challenges do you see for the field of teacher education?

Kristy: I don’t know if I would consider this a “new challenge” in the field of teacher education but I believe it is important that we keep in mind that teacher education is inclusive of teachers learning throughout their careers. Educational initiatives and mandates are constantly changing, so teachers need to adjust and learn in accordance with these shifts, like the C3 Framework in social studies or the Common Core State Standards for Language Arts. So the stories, experiences, learning opportunities for new and veteran teachers are important for us to understand. For this study, I really enjoyed working with first-year teachers and 20-year veterans in the same group, and I think they learned a lot from one another.

Kathryn: I’m not sure the challenges I see are new either, but I often find my head spinning when I think about all the things we know are important for kids and teachers and trying to narrow the list down to the most urgent needs. On top of that, trying to reconcile what we know about the importance of listening to teachers as they self-identify their own needs with what we know about the importance of school- and even district-wide initiatives. I’m personally challenged trying to balance those things in my head on pretty much a daily basis, but our attempts, imperfect as they may be, are always a bit like solving interesting puzzles, more motivating than discouraging (usually).

Kristy: I agree that the balance of teacher/school initiatives and research interests can be challenging. It is important that this type of research be mutually beneficial for the teachers that participate as well as to the researchers. This is something we are constantly striving for in our work.

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