Leveraging Banksy’s Art to Inspire New Approaches to Literacy Instruction

Updated: Jan 22, 2019

W. Kyle Jones


Keywords: English Language Arts, Literacy Instruction, Banksy, Connotation, Rhetoric, Critical Thinking

Introduction & Context

For the first 7 years of my teaching career, I taught 9th and 10th grade language arts at the high school from which I graduated, but later transferred to another school in the same district, where the start of my doctoral studies changed my perspective on how literacy should and could be taught forever. The first school, which I will call North Heights High School, where this work began is a large suburban school of nearly 3,000 students in a high socioeconomic area. The second school, which I will call Lakeview High School, is also a suburban high school of approximately 1,800 students with a median income significantly less than that of the area of the first school. Energized by my readings of scholars such as Henry Jenkins and Hilary Janks and discussions with other graduate students, I sought out the help of my school’s media specialist during the fall of my first year as a doctoral student to create a unit that explored literacy skills in a less conventional manner. The initial result was a crash course in learning about Banksy, a enigmatic street artist, and how I could welcome my students to create Banky-like stencil art using PowerPoint to explore connotation. Eventually, I leveraged Banksy’s art and mystique as a way to explore and wrestle with critical thinking and argumentative writing. What follows is an account of how these lessons were refined over time.


Events, Actions, and Outcomes

My goal was to stretch my students’ conception of literacy (i.e. what counts as text) and authentically produce written and designed products. Authentic here is probably best described as more meaningful writing and image creation for an audience beyond the classroom. Originally, I was merely seeking to help my students better understand connotation. Over the course of two more years revisiting Banksy and these lessons, my goal changed to welcoming my students to turn a critical eye toward image making and argumentation (inspired by the work and research of Hilary Janks). Ultimately, the learning objectives of the lessons were to promote meaning making with images, transfer ownership of learning argumentation to students, and welcome students to authentically express critical points of view.


The first attempt at using Banksy saw my students being introduced to his work via the school’s media specialist, showing them the artist’s work and having them complete a webquest. We spent 3 days in the media center with days 2 and 3 focused on students learning to use PowerPoint as a design tool to create their own digital, stencil-like images that had to be anchored with text. Students then wrote a brief explanation of their creation’s connotative meaning. Students struggled to make sense of what I was asking them to do; they expressed interest, but were hesitant. This assignment was unlike anything they had been asked to do in a language arts class before. At the conclusion of 3 days, however, nearly every student produced an image with anchor text. My original intention was to display these images in the commons area of the school, which I had initial permission to do. Once the administration saw some of the images--several took on subjects such as suicide, depression, racial profiling, and bullying--they politely told me my students’ work could not be displayed publicly. My students were proud of their work and were distressed to hear they would not be permitted to show it, so we spent time discussing censorship and what made their work potentially controversial. This experience led to a spring semester where my students appeared up for trying new writing modalities and welcomed more discussion about text.


Upon reflecting on my first use of Banksy in my classroom, I determined I could move beyond having students make images and anchoring them with text. I took my original plans and aligned it with an argumentative writing unit. Students created their Banksy-style/remixed image and then curated them for others to critique, looking for the rhetorical elements of ethos, pathos, and logos. Additionally, students had to develop a précis—a writing technique often employed in Advanced Placement language courses—to articulate their piece’s purpose, audience, and meaning. The quality of the work I received depended on students’ literacy skill level. Each student participated, completing a gallery walk of each other’s art work--which was posted anonymously in hopes to curtail bias--and writing the précis. Unlike at North Heights, the students at Lakeview were able to post their work publically. Even the students who struggled to write a more thoughtful précis appeared to take pride in their work. Similarly to the first group of students, these students appeared more open to see text differently, seeing literacy as an action that went beyond reading and writing. Maybe more importantly, this group demonstrated a stronger use of rhetorical strategies.


Discussion

My intent was to use Banksy’s mystique and his art to welcome my students to explore what Street and Street (1998) call unschooled literacy practices--or, really, exploring literacy in ways typically unwelcome in the ELA classroom. In this particular case, I was emboldened to concentrate on visual literacy and eventually move into a more critical visual literacy (Janks, 2010) where students generated images and argued for the social commentary and purpose in them. Additionally, I admire Jenkins et al. (2009) promotion of remixing images and text to welcome students to develop new media skills, including what he coins “transmedia navigation”--moving from text to image to video and vice versa. This project was meant to capture the spirit of transmedia navigation and welcome the exploration of typically unschooled literacy practices, which in this case was studying, creating, critiquing, and debating street art.


References

Janks, H. (2010). Literacy and power. New York, NY: Routledge.


Jenkins, H., Purushotma, R., Weigel, M., Clinton, K., & Robison, A. J. (2009). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education for the 21st century. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.


Street, J. C. & Street, B. (1995). The schooling of literacy. In Murphy, P., Selinger, M., Bourne, J. & Briggs, M. (Eds.), Subject learning in the primary curriculum: Issues in English, science, and mathematics (pp. 72-85). New York, NY: Routledge.

Shulman, J. H., Colbert, J. A., ERIC Clearinghouse on Teacher Education, W. D., Far West Lab. for Educational Research and Development, S. C., & ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management, E. O. (1988). The Intern Teacher Casebook.

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The Teacher Casebook was founded in 2018 by Nick Thompson and Kyle Jones, EdD