Journey of a Visual Arts Teacher
Modern Literacy Across the Discipines

In contemporary society, literacy has come to mean more than just being able to decipher the print word. Teachers need to acknowledge that new media and new literacy practice are vital components in engaging students in learning across the disciplines. Research into which types of literacy the visual arts and media studies value needs to look beyond traditional forms of reading (decoding) and writing (encoding) text as advancements in technology have changed the way information is produced and obtained, media is created, and meaning is constructed.

Moje, through her research into literacy teaching and learning, poses a poignant question: “Does literacy simply refer to the cognitive processes of decoding, comprehending, encoding and composing informational print texts?” (2008, p. 99). To answer this question, it must be acknowledged that visual and media literacy are valued as the highest forms of literacy within the visual arts and media curriculum. Burton (2005) states that “visual literacy is a fundamental building block of complete media comprehension, making a learner conscious of visual processes and articulate in using them” (p. 95). Media literacy refers to “the ability to ‘read’ and understand visual, aural and digital messages. It means having the skills to understand and interact with the media analytically, critically and knowledgably” (Burton, 2005, p. 95). In response to Moje’s question of the importance of visual literacy in media literacy, it could then be surmised that literacy no longer ‘simply refers’ to print text, rather to all forms of print, analogue and digital representations of information.

The open plan, glass fronted classrooms of the educational institution where I completed a Professional Experience placement presented the opportunity to observe various teaching practices in different discipline areas. One afternoon, as I walked from the Media classroom to the staff room, I counted seven classrooms where the lights were off and some form of multimedia was being examined on the data projector. When I approached some of the teachers to ask about their use of media in the classroom, I was expecting to discover that media was being used as a ‘time filler’ or ‘busy work’ for the students.

One English teacher recounted how the use of film and images - placing content within a multimedia context - was her favourite way to introduce students to new text-based material. Using a similar method with pictures for her reading workshop class, Tovani praises her students’ thinking by saying, “Look what you guys did as you ‘read’ this picture. You questioned the validity of it. You asked questions. You made connections to what you know about the world. You were thinking as you read the piece. Whether you know it or not, you are thinking all the time. When you look at a picture or watch television, you are thinking. The type of thinking you did today is the same type of thinking you want to do when you read” (2004, p. 68).  The use of multimedia across the disciplines is becoming more and more prevalent. It provides students with an opportunity to enter into comprehension discussions, engages students in deeper analysis of what is being examined and is used as a bridging tool for more traditional forms of decoding and encoding literacy.

Students’ knowledge of digital media should be recognised and utilised within the confines of education. Teachers need to be aware that literacy learning is not just constrained to books. “A reconceptualised view of secondary literacy suggests that a person who has learned deeply in a discipline can use a variety of representational forms-most notably reading and writing of written texts, but also oral language, visual images, or artistic representations-to communicate their learning, to synthesize ideas across texts and across groups of people, to express new ideas, and to question and challenge ideas held dear in the discipline and in broader spheres.” (Moje, 2008, p. 99). What Moje is saying here is that teachers need to provide students with different opportunities to demonstrate literacy learning. Students provided with multimedia and multiliteracy alternatives to decoding and encoding content may be enabled to engage deeper in learning across all areas of the curriculum.

Media permeates almost every aspect of modern society and helps construct knowledge about the world. Advancements in, and increased access to technology means that information can be quickly and easily accessed from even the most remote locations. In his study on media literacy, Luke (2007) infers that “mobile phones, personal digital assistants (PDA) or the internet and networked computers are both media and digital technologies that demand new hybrid forms of visual and print literacy, Internet and information literacy, technology and media literacy” (p. 51). The integration of information and communication technology (ICT) has become an integral component of pedagogy. Most schools have Internet and network connected computers; most students have a mobile phone, and there is a section in most education and curriculum policy documents focusing on the incorporation of ICT in the classroom. The learning and understanding of media literacy is an essential component of modern day education across the disciplines.

While examining the question “What kinds of literacy does my discipline value?”, it became obvious that the concept of literacy in modern society is complex and still evolving. Visual and media literacy are important components of the media and arts curriculum, but are relevant across the disciplines and in the world beyond the classroom. The value of traditional forms of literacy must also be acknowledged in the study of media and arts. The ability to write about works and the creative process, for example, is a necessary component of being a professional visual or media artist.


Burton, L. (2005). What is this Media Literacy thing? Primary and Secondary Classroom Ideas from across Australia, Screen Education, 38, 93-98.

Campbell, R., & Green, D. (2006). Literacies and Learners: Current Perspectives            (3rd ed.). NSW, Australia: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Luke, C. (2007). As Seen on TV or Was that My Phone? New Media Literacy, Policy Futures in Education, 5(1), 50-58.

McQueen, M. (2008). The ‘New’ Rules of Engagement: A Guide to Understanding & Connecting with Generation Y, Australia: Hyde Park Press.

Moje, E. B. (2008). Foregrounding the Disciplines in Secondary Literacy Teaching and Learning: A Call for Change, Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 52(2), 96-107.

Tovani, C. (2004). Do I really have to teach reading? Content Comprehension, Grades 6-12. Portland, Maine: Stenhouse Publishers.

Walsh, C. (2008). Teaching Literacy in the New Media Age through the Arts, Literacy Learning: the Middle Years, 16(1), 8-17.

Western Australian College of Teaching. (2009). Talking to learn: Dialogue in the classroom, The Digest, July, 1-17 Retrieved from

Modelling Media Literacy

The students were unsure of what was expected of them for the seminar assessment task. To combat this and to further my knowledge of the theoretical and practical aspects of media studies I decided to write and present a seminar to the media classes to help engage students in a deeper understanding of media literacy and to clarify any questions that they may have. I also provided students with the same rubric I used to assess their presentations to assess me.

Through modelling the seminar, I am confident that students had many opportunities to ask questions, understand and learn what was expected of their presentations and develop a better understanding of how to ‘read’ media. I believe that using role reversal helped establish better relationships with some of the students, and gave them the opportunity to deeper understand the processes involved in assessing their work.

Media & Visual Literacy

Throughout my professional experience placements, I focused on literacy across the disciplines to help me better prepare for the task of engaging students that I had identified as having literacy difficulties. One of these students in one of my media classes was Brad, who seemed disengaged and uninterested in tasks that involved reading and writing. When presented with a quick survey designed to assess students’ prior knowledge and areas of interest in media, he spent most of the time drawing pictures on the back.

After reviewing Brad’s academic transcript, I discovered that in first semester he had gotten a D for Maths, Media and Photography, a B for Visual Arts and a C for English. His English teacher’s comments read:

“Brad, you have worked well in this unit on most assessment items. You have demonstrated effective communication skills in the first essay, the creative presentation and the test essay. You did miss the oral presentation. Stay organised about the submission of all set work. Best wishes for next semester”.

None of Brad’s teachers had identified him as experiencing difficulties with traditional forms of literacy. His mark in Visual Arts, and the drawings on the back of his survey indicated that he is a skilled drawer. His marks in Media and Photography suggest that his visual and media literacy knowledge might be limited. Tovani says, “for students who struggle to read anything, the most accessible text is the one with the fewest possible words” (2004, p.67). Using this premise and Brad’s apparent interest in drawing, I was able to engage Brad in activities that helped develop his visual and media literacy skills, and helped him translate his verbal analysis of images (both still and moving) into an encoded, written text. Through discussion of images and modelling terminology I was able to help Brad develop his knowledge of multiliteracy and encourage him in developing his writing skills by engaging him in a variety of in class writing exercises.

This teaching strategy was time consuming and often frustrating as the general expectations of Media students’ ability to read and write in the classroom were low. In Brad’s case, I eventually discovered that he had been diagnosed as having ADHD. Communication with Brad’s parents and interactions with him in class revealed that he was not taking his medication regularly. Teachers need to be aware that there are often other factors that need to be considered when identifying an individual student’s literacy and engagement levels.


Tovani, C. (2004). Do I really have to teach reading? Content Comprehension, Grades 6-12. Portland, Maine: Stenhouse Publishers.

One students assessment of my Media seminar assessment task

James is a highly intelligent student but does not apply himself to his studies. I found his feedback on my presentation most creative and amusing. During the next class, after I had the rest of the class working on preparing their presentation, I asked to speak to him.

I first thanked James for his efforts as he provided the most written feedback of anyone in the class. He was a little taken aback by this as he assumed he would be getting into trouble.

I praised him on his level of creativity and literacy skills. He asked me if I was proud of him and I answered yes that I was. I further went on to explain that if he applied himself to his studies with half the amount of energy he expended in making fun of me, he would be an unstoppable straight A student. 

After this small interaction I saw a change in James during class. He applied himself and engaged in constructive classroom conversations and loved sharing his three-minute writings.

Dialogue in the Classroom

The visual arts classroom is an ideal environment in which to engage students in learning through dialogue. The Western Australian College of Teaching Digest states that “dialogic teaching is characterised by comparatively lengthy interactions between a teacher and a student or group of students in a context of collaboration and mutual support” (2009, p. 2). When teaching my photography class about Conceptual Photography I engaged the students in critique sessions that would involve the entire class in looking at and analysing each other’s works-in-progress. During these sessions I encouraged students to have their visual process diaries open to take relevant notes, based on my own suggestions and those of their peers.

Tovani said teachers should “work hard to help [students] understand that there is not one right answer when thinking about a piece of text” (2004, p. 72), a principle I also encouraged my students to adopt when analysing an image. This enabled the students to create a dialogue with each other on the subject of conceptual photography while giving me the opportunity to model correct photographic terminology used in the analysis of visual images.

At the end of each class, I would engage the students in the three-minute writing exercise that had been modelled to me during the ‘Literacy across disciplines’ tutorial. These teaching strategies provided students with a safe environment to explore and develop their visual literacy skills by ‘reading’ the images and the intentions of the artist. The topic of the three-minute writing exercise would always be negotiated via discussions in each lesson and enabled students to reflect on the dialogue of the class, and further develop their written literacy skills.


Tovani, C. (2004). Do I really have to teach reading? Content Comprehension, Grades 6-12. Portland, Maine: Stenhouse Publishers.

Western Australian College of Teaching. (2009). Talking to learn: Dialogue in the classroom, The Digest, July, 1-17 Retrieved from

Creative Visual Art Handout
To engage visual arts students in reading both text and images teachers can create hand outs that incorporate both. This  handout is a work of art in itself and has been proven to be a  huge success in high school art classrooms. This encourages visual learners to engage in text based literacy and all students the opportunity to further develop visual literacy skills and knowledge.  

Creative Visual Art Handout

To engage visual arts students in reading both text and images teachers can create hand outs that incorporate both. This handout is a work of art in itself and has been proven to be a huge success in high school art classrooms. This encourages visual learners to engage in text based literacy and all students the opportunity to further develop visual literacy skills and knowledge.

Word Map of Teachers Blog

Word Map of Teachers Blog

Conceptual Photography

This arrangement was effective for my photography class as they had finished term threes unit of work on art photography. Through my observations of the class I had seen that the students had taken some strong artistic images but that the conceptual meaning behind their work was something of an after thought. During discussions with my mentor it was decided that the students needed to develop a stronger understanding of creating a series of images that represented an original idea.

I devised a unit of study that would scaffold students learning about conceptual photography. I arranged an excursion to the ‘Hijacked 2: Germany and Australia” photographic exhibition that was showing at the Canberra School of Art Gallery. I read the institutions excursion policy statement and devised an excursion information and permission form for the students. I arranged for Martyn Jolly to come and talk to the class about the exhibition and give them a tour of the Photography & Digital Media workshops. 

Where it all began…

I have always had a passion for the creative. My journey of becoming a visual arts teacher began long before I moved back to Canberra in January of this year to study a Graduate Diploma in secondary education. I studied art as an elective all through high school and found my love of photography in college. Studying at the Canberra school of art was the most enriching and rewarding 4 years of my life. It was also the time that I truly found myself as a person.

All art made is based on personal experiences and as I had only lived in Canberra for 25 years I found my art making still. I left Canberra to move to London and ended up living in Berlin for seven years. None of the experiences that I had or places that I travelled to would prepare me for this latest chapter in my life.

This year has been challenging, enriching and tumultuous both personally and professionally. I have adjusted to being back in my hometown that I left so many years ago, I was thrown into an academic environment that is completely unfamiliar to me and my long distant relationship broke down. What I have discovered is that I am much stronger than I ever imagined and that I have the potential to be an excellent visual arts educator.

During my first block of professional experience I was placed in a wonderful educational institution with an amazing mentor. I had the opportunity to engage a variety of students in learning about photography, my area of expertise. While reflecting on my teaching during the experience I determined that I had engaged the students in learning about the practical side of both digital and black and white photography but that I could have developed a more structured theory component to the units of study taught.

With this in mind I had already decided before finding out my placement details that this block of professional experience would have a strong and highly structured theory component, regardless of what subjects I would be teaching.

The professional experience was arranged to take place on the last two weeks of term three and the first three weeks of term four. Due to the structure of the institution the last week of term three was my first week on experience and deemed to be my observation week. My first week teaching was the last week of term but technically the first week of term four and new units of study where meant to be introduced.

Conceptual Photography KeyNote Presentation

The first lesson involved exposing the class to the conceptual photography of Andreas Gurskey, the images installations of Christian Boltanski and a video installation by Bill Viola. I sourced images from Gurskey and Boltanski and created a KeyNote presentation. I engaged the class in a discussion about their personal interpretation of each image before giving the students further information about the artist’s intentions. This was to show the students that each individual interprets different meaning from the images examined.