Visual Literacy to Build Class Community

Updated: May 5

**This post is sponsored by Getty Unshuttered. All opinions written within are my own.**

It is no secret that student engagement is marginal at best for many of us as we continue with distance learning through the COVID-19 pandemic. My Instagram and YouTube comments are FULL of messages commiserating, asking for help, or offering suggestions about how to get students to participate in their own education.

It can be difficult to see past the dwindling number of students participating in discussions, meetings, and assignments. I have found some great strategies that are making a ton of headway in rebuilding some of the community we had in class before school closed, but I am confronted with the fact that THIS IS A CONSTANT EFFORT TO MAINTAIN.

What I want is to be in my classroom with my students and introduce an activity to them that I know will:

  1. Hook their attention

  2. Build a sense of community amongst the group

  3. Stretch their literacy and analytical skills

Ok, so the part about being in my classroom is out for obvious reasons… The activity bit, though, got me strolling down memory lane...

Early on in my teaching career (circa 2007), I used social media as a means to engage students by meeting them where they were at. No, I wasn’t requesting that students be my Facebook friends (there was no Instagram at the time!) - rather, I used their general knowledge of and fluency in the platform to engage in a discussion of literature.

I took long sheets of butcher paper, hung them around the classroom, and had students group up to create Facebook profiles for the characters in Les Miserables. After the profiles were created down to the tiniest details, they took strips of paper and went around “posting” on each other’s profiles from the perspective of their group’s character. It sounds a little archaic now, but it totally worked! Their understanding of Fantine’s struggles was deep, and I was able to see evidence of that understanding in their work.

I have tried to recreate this same sort of activity in terms of the platforms today’s students use, but since they are mostly using visual apps like Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok, the logistics of large butcher paper sheets around the room and paper “posts” just don’t quite translate. I have tried the same sort of thing using Google Slides to create photo essays on slide presentations, but the authenticity of using a sharing app wasn’t there, and students simply weren’t that pumped about it.

When I found Getty Unshuttered, a free photo sharing app by the J. Paul Getty Museum, I found the solution I was looking for to my activity quandary. Getty Unshuttered is a photo sharing app, like Instagram or Snapchat, but without the social focus - the focus is all about the images and the photographers behind them.

Today’s students are bombarded with visual images throughout their waking hours, and building their visual communication skills not only helps them articulate their own thoughts in different formats, it also helps develop their critical thinking skills when it comes to the images they consume. Getty Unshuttered is a place for students to learn and grow, and where everyone who posts is considered an artist. I am also a big fan of their community guidelines (guidelines that make a teacher feel comfortable sharing this app with students) and the fact that posts are monitored, reviewed, and removed if deemed inappropriate.

My plan for using Getty Unshuttered with my classes is to hold a photo contest at the end of the year. Students will view lessons (my favorites are the ones teaching Perspective!) and participate in challenges through the app to build their photography skills, and then enter a photo for the contest that responds to a prompt. The excitement of a contest, posting their practice photos along the way, and sharing in each other's experience build community in an organic and meaningful way.

The prompt I created for my classes asks students to compose a photograph that expresses “Wisdom Found at Home,” but there are SO MANY ways to go about this! Here are a few more ideas I had:

  • Literary theme or message

  • Character analysis/bio

  • Personal statement

  • Day in the life during quarantine

  • Character day in the life during quarantine

  • Symbolism in literature

  • So many more!!!

CLICK HERE to check out my assignment details!

Check out Getty Unshuttered for yourself! Even just scrolling through the feed, it is pretty amazing what people can create and express with a single image!

How might you use Getty Unshuttered to build community with your classes? Share in the comments below!

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