Jon Callow

To cite this article, use the following information:
Callow, J. (2008). As I See It: Integrating Viewing Across the Curriculum. New Literacies: A Professional Development Wiki for Educators. Developed under the aegis of the Improving Teacher Quality Project (ITQP), a federally funded partnership between Montclair State University and East Orange School District, New Jersey.
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Jon Callow:


That’s how he sees it - that’s how he sees the world - that’s how he wants to make the world, by using royal colours and making the people well dressed.”
This comment from a grade 6 student, was made in response to a famous Australian painting depicting the opening of the first federal parliament in Australia in 1901. The artwork (seen below) shows a great crowd amassed, as the future King of England officiates at the ceremony. There is a regal atmosphere, where rich red carpet and exquisite banners adorn gilded walls, while many hundreds of dignitaries observe this historic event. The clothing, the placement of the royal figure and even the use of sunlight is carefully used to portray a very important event in Australian history.

Opening of the first Australian Parliament- Tom Roberts

So, what does the student's comment reveal? As well as learning about Australian history through this painting, this student was also showing he had learned about this painting in particular – and about one aspect of images in general – that it represents one artist’s view of the world, and how that artist has chosen to understand and represent reality. An artist or photographer or textbook writer makes a choice about how an image is constructed or used. Viewing, which includes learning about how various images "work" is often embedded in reading, writing, talking and speaking, but it is made very explicit in the viewing and media literacy standard of the New Jersey Language Arts Core curriculum Standards (New Jersey Dept. of Education, 2004).

This wiki article will explore the integration of visual literacy in cross-curriculum contexts in middle years contexts. It will first present a theoretical framework, and then give ideas for lessons in classroom contexts, integrating language arts with social studies and history.

I react, I understand, I question: Exploring the affective, compositional and critical elements
Flower Chucker-Banksy

Consider the image above. At first glance, we see what appears to be a masked man, with an aggressive stance, about to throw something. He seems to be adopting quite a hostile action, but in his hand is not a rock or a brick, but a bouquet of flowers. Our initial reaction might be curiosity, amusement or even dislike. Thinking more closely about the image we might wonder about its purpose – a cartoon, some graffiti? Perhaps a political comment: Spread beauty, not violence? If we saw this painted on a street wall, we may condemn it as vandalism, but in an art gallery, we would accept it as art, but perhaps question the message or the see it as a "low" art, with limited value. There are clearly many facets and levels when it comes to the act of viewing.

From my comments above, we can already draw out some key principles for understanding how to view and teach about images. Images can be very powerful and they often have an immediate affect on us. Unlike our initial encounter with written text, which unfolds a linear fashion, images are initially experienced "all at once". So it is important to acknowledge the impact of pictures and images, and include some space for students’ reactions - their affective response - when we use images in the classroom. However, simply reacting affectively to an image, an artwork or a screen often leaves other layers of communication unexplored. We should also explore the possible meanings presented and the elements or composition of the image itself (Callow, 2005).

When I described the image above, I assumed you could see that the figure was in a throwing position, arms stretched out, and legs standing firm. While we might assume that most pictures clearly communicate an action or event, often our students (and sometimes teachers) don’t have a language to further describe or elaborate upon what is happening in the image and how the image has been constructed. With Flower Chucker, we have very strong diagonal lines made by his arms, with his right leg paralleling them. The use of a mask over his mouth, teamed with simple black and white clothes and narrowed eyes creates an ominous feel. However, the use of colored flowers, ready to be thrown, doesn’t fit with the rest of the image. Our background knowledge of people who appear angry and throw things, doesn’t fit with a bunch of flowers. We have identified the compositional aspects of the image, and we then combine that with our contextual and cultural knowledge to work towards understanding what meaning or meanings might be present.

It is at this point that we can also bring to bear a critical reading of the image, placing it in context and then considering what ideas and views about the world are presented, and whether or not we agree with them. A critical viewing of Flower Chucker might involve discussing the artist's views about the world; for example, does throwing flowers really have a serious point or value? In researching the artist himself, there is fertile ground for discussing his approaches to art and political comment. A well-known yet apparently anonymous British graffiti artist, Banksy creates satirical and anti-authoritarian artworks and graffiti. His work appears on walls from Brooklyn, to London, to New Orleans in the U.S., to the West Bank in the Middle East. He is accused of vandalism and disrespect to the law, he is yet a household name in England and his non-street art sells for many thousands of dollars (Collins, 2007). As viewers, how do we respond to his message and his medium? Should graffiti artists be respected or shunned, even if they have messages of hope or social critique? What is the place of street art in our culture?

Acknowledging three elements – the affective, the compositional and the critical – and the way they overlap when we respond to and interpret an image is a useful framework for developing viewing in the classroom (Callow, 2008). The image below shows the concept visually, where each element is present, although one may come to the forefront at different points in time. (click here to see an animated version)

A visual model-3 elements

Viewing in the Curriculum Standards

Pictures and images can be used very powerfully in middle years classrooms, both in language arts and when integrating literacy across other curriculum areas. The viewing strand in the New Jersey Core Curriculum Standards states “All students will access, view, evaluate, and respond to print, nonprint, and electronic texts and resources” (New Jersey Dept. of Education, 2004). This is a broad standard and there are more specific strands and indicators for middle years students. For example, by Grade 6 students are expected to be able to distinguish between factual and fictional representations, understand target audience, and distinguish different points of view in media texts. They also need to be able to discuss the emotional impact of a still image, compare and contrast media sources and select appropriate media for a presentation. By Grade 8, there are similar but more sophisticated indicators, which also include analyzing and responding to visual and print images, judging the credibility and effectiveness of visual presentations and analyzing media for emotional effect on an audience. Being able to demonstrate these indicators will involve both spoken and written responses. The question then is how to integrate viewing in meaningful ways into classroom practice, and to provide students with strategies for engaging in creating written and multimodal responses to what they are viewing and discussing in their classrooms and in the media.

Integrating Viewing across curriculum areas

Researching and team teaching with a Grade 6 class in Sydney, Australia, I worked with the classroom teacher as she planned an integrated/cross-curriculum unit of work (Callow, 2006). She had specifically included viewing as part of a language arts, social studies and visual arts theme about Australian Identity and History. Working with students from low socio-economic backgrounds and a variety of cultures, she was keen to both engage them in successful learning as well as in enhancing their literacy skills. Since the use of pictures had the potential to give students equal access to information, regardless of reading levels, she used famous Australian artists and their work to build her students’ understanding of historical events and the people they were studying.

While the unit involved the more traditional skills of reading and writing about Australian history, students were also involved in viewing and critical thinking skills to assist them in accessing information from web sites, art books and specific works of art. Well-known artworks were used to learn about the Australian landscape and also about the history of particular events. In order to initially explore the pictures, the teacher used a "five senses" approach in roder to create a path into the artists' work.

Guided Viewing: The five senses approach

Consider the artwork below:

Figure in the Bush-Nolan

Even without historical context, there are pathways into this image.
  • What can you see? Many trees and a dark figure behind one.
  • What is the figure wearing? A black helmet with just the eyes showing, and long black clothing (actually armor made from iron plowshares).
  • Imagine you are in a forest, wearing this helmet and armor. What would you be feeling? Imagine the weight of 100 pounds of armor as you walk through the forest.
  • What sounds might be in the forest? Can you hear any animals or birds?
  • Imagine you reach out and touch the trees. How do they feel?
  • Breathe in the air. How does it taste? Fresh, or hot and stuffy from being inside the helmet?

Because the pictures used in this curriculum unit represented actual people and places from history, the initial exploration of them by using the students' five senses built background knowledge for the students. The picture above is by Sidney Nolan and represents Ned Kelly, a famous bushranger (roughly equivalent to an "outlaw" in the U.S.) who lived in the 19th century. From a poor Irish immigrant family, on the run from the law and wearing his nowiconic armor, Ned Kelly and his gang were controversial even in their own time. The authorities viewed Kelly as a criminal and thief, while many saw him championing the rights of the poor and oppressed. The use of an artwork, such as Nolan's famous painting, created a pathway into the content of Australian history, and into new literacy skills, particularly viewing.

Using the five senses engaged students’ affective responses initially, but this was then extended to look at the story of the main character, as well as at specific visual elements. The initial approach of inviting students "into" each artwork included in this curriculum unit provided a non-threatening and engaging way into viewing for the class. Students' confidence was strengthened by the teachers' acceptance of their opinions, and this was then built upon to guide them into using specific terms or a shared "metalanguage" to discuss pictures and artworks. This metalanguage, drawing on visual arts terms, included concepts such as "line", "color", "shape", "perspective" and "texture". The broader social contexts of each painting - both in terms of when the image was painted, and when the event depicted occurred - were also discussed, and this provided scope for critical discussion about each artist's ideas and choices in portraying the world.

Viewing and Writing: The review and response genre

Whether using artworks, print media, website images, picture books or scientific illustrations, students may be asked to show their knowledge of these texts in a written response. In the same way that an essay may argue the effectiveness or power of a novel or poem, so, too, a visual image may be the basis for a written piece. While some formal testing may use an image as a prompt for writing a narrative, the more common cultural experience of images requires students to understand how images may be informing, entertaining and persuading an audience. Cross-curriculum work often requires students to access written and visual texts, where they must interpret, then discuss their understandings. By extending the five senses approach above, the classroom teacher introduced the genre of "response and review" writing to her students and engaged them them in using their language for analyzing and discsusing visual images to write about an artwork.

The basic structure for a review and response piece was shown to the class. The teacher and students read a clear example in a modeled reading lesson, and identified the structural elements as well as the key information that the needed to be included.
The structure for the review and response included:

Introductionsetting the context
Identify the artwork and provide key information about the artist

Description of the artworkkey compositional and visual terms
Describe the subject matter and location, the materials and techniques used and the effect of these on the viewer.

Reactionpersonal response to the artwork
Evaluate how the artwork impacts on you and what is its relationship to the topic being studied.
An example, adapted from a Year 6 student’s written text about the Roberts' artwork, Opening of the first Australian Parliament (see above), is shown below, with some of the key visual terms or metalanguage in bold.

Setting the context
Identify the artwork and provide key information about the artist
The artwork “Opening of the First Parliament" was painted on May 1901 using oil on canvas. The painter was Tom Roberts, who was born in England on the 8th of March, 1856, and arrived in Australia in 1869. He was encouraged to be an outdoor or "en plein air" artist and he usually painted landscapes. He died on September 14th, 1931.
Description of the artwork
Key compositional and visual terms
Describe the subject matter and location, the materials and techniques used, and the effect of these on the viewer
This magnificent painting "Opening of the First Parliament" shows a lot of important people, such as governors, politicians, judges and His Royal Highness the Duke of Cornwall and York. Tom Roberts makes this picture feel realistic by drawing and adding in every single detail. He used royal colors (by this I mean rich and dark colors, such as reds, golds, whites, browns and greens). He used light and dark tones', thin and thick brush strokes and showed quite specific detail on the clothing. He demonstrated perspective by making people in the background smaller compared to those on the stage. This makes the people in the background look a long way away, making the hall look both large and crowded. He used sunlight to make the Duke stand out from everyone else. Positioning the Duke by himself, painted in a lighter color with the crowd darker, makes him the main focus of the painting.
Personal response to the artwork
Describe how the unique qualities impact on you and what these qualities say about the topic being studied.
The picture showed that the opening of the first parliament was an important and special part of our Australian history. It looked very realistic and also made the Duke seem very important. It also showed that only wealthy and powerful people were invited to be part of this event. I believe that this is one of Australia’s great pictures and shows an important part of the history of Australian democracy.

Viewing in History using Graphic Novels

The graphic novel has become a more mainstream form of reading in western culture (Grossmen, 2007). It has also become more common in recent years to see this medium used in school libraries and English classrooms (see, for example, the Young Adult Library Services Association Recommended Lists). Argued by Schwarz (Schwarz, 2004) as being an excellent resource for teaching both multiliteracies and multiculturalism, the graphic novel can refer to either fiction or non-fiction text which is presented using the conventions of a comic book. Given that graphic novels can include fiction, historical fiction and non-fiction, other curriculum areas can also benefit from their use (see, for example, Graphic Novels across the Curriculum).
The use of graphic novels for teaching history should include teaching reading strategies for such texts as part of thinking like a historian (Boerman-Cornell & Manderino, 2007). Historians need to understand the contextualization of historical information, as well as the validity and source of that information (Wineburg, 1991). So, when using graphic novels such as Maus (Spiegelman, 1986), Safe Area Goraézde(Sacco, 2001) and The 9/11 report: A graphic adaptation (Jacobson, Colón, Kean, Hamilton, & National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, 2006) in the history classroom, Boerman-Cornell and Manderino (2007) suggest that learning to read both the verbal and visual text involves not only understanding the grammar of text and image, but also considering how the story is contextualized historically, whose points of view are presented and the reliability of the accounts.

Guided Viewing: Context and Empathy

The graphic novel The Arrival by Shaun Tan (2006) has no written text at all, yet tells a detailed story of an immigrant who leaves his homeland to travel to a strange new country, where he experiences loneliness, and hardship, as well as kindness and hope. While the world that Tan creates is surreal in many ways, there are many intertextual links to immigrant experiences in the U.S. in the late nineteenth century. Reading a work like this requires students to interpret the actions in each image, as well as the historical context within which the account is set.

In The Arrival, the images of the new land that our unnamed settler finds himself have strong visual connections with the arrival of immigrants at Ellis Island in New York. Consider the photograph, Immigrants on Atlantic Liner (by E. Levick).

Immigrants on Atlantic Liner- Levick, E.

As a viewer, we are positioned as quite dominant here. This high angle shot, looking down on the sea of people, most of who are looking up to us, portrays them as much less powerful than we, the viewers, are. While the ropes and masts take some of our attention, it is the sheer number of passengers staring upwards that is a salient feature of this photo. Historically we know that most have given all they have to travel to the land of opportunity, often leaving family and friends behind in their birth country. How might an individual feel in the midst of this? Can one historical photo give insight into the emotional experiences of these people? How does this photo suggest we "should" feel about immigrants in general? By explicitly combining knowledge of the photo’s composition and its implied power relations, teachers can help students understand how some images can create empathy, while some can suggest superiority or dominance.

It is here that reading a graphic novel such as The Arrival can provide another "account" of the immigrant experience. Compare the historic photo here to the images on Shaun Tan’s website, taken from The Arrival. The images of the harbor entry are particularly poignant, when compared to similar historical photos of the Statue of Liberty who greeted ships coming to Ellis Island. Tan studied many photos and documents from that period and students can find many points of connection when viewing the graphic novel with other historical photos.

Writing about historical photographs

Any writing task should have a clear purpose, whether it is a simple comprehension exercise or a more complex essay or assignment. Often an image in history, whether it is a political cartoon or an historic photograph, will be just one source of information that a student may read as part of preparing for an essay (Manderino, 2007). An example of an argument style essay question might be: “American immigration was made too easy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Discuss the challenges for immigrants coming to America at this time”. An example of an interpretation synthesizing the photographic information from the "Immigrants on Atlantic Liner" photograph above, as well as drawing on written and audio sources is below.

The immigrant experience of coming to America was often one of great hardship. Personal stories of immigrants explain how difficult and demanding their experiences were. Many photographs from the period show them forced into overcrowded conditions on the ocean liners. From the photograph Immigrants on Atlantic Liner, many appear strained and weak, particularly as we are looking down on them, yet others look more optimistic, ready for the new world. From first hand accounts, such as the audio interviews at the Ellis Island Museum, we can hear the emotion in the voice of a woman recounting her father arriving at Ellis Island, showing how difficult the task of migration was for many.


That’s how he sees it - that’s how he sees the world”. If we can help all our students develop a critical understanding such as this when they view visual images, we will be achieving a great deal. The challenge of including viewing when teaching literacy across the curriculum is not so much the lack of visual texts with which to engage, but for teachers to clearly understand how to guide students in reading visual elements. Making meaning, extracting relevant information, developing relevant, shared metalinguistic terms to describe what is seen, and understanding how images and multimodal texts position viewers are key skills. These skills need to be addressed not only in language arts classrooms, but in any class where students are viewing images. By including explicit guided viewing with texts that use image, teachers can better equip students for both reading comprehension and associated writing tasks, which may require reading a variety of multimodal texts. In this way we can help students see the different ways images position them to "see" the world: past, present and future.


  • Boerman-Cornell, W., & Manderino, M. (2007, November). Multimodal history and content area reading strategies: Textual analyses of three graphic novels. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the National Reading Conference, Austin, TX.
  • Callow, J. (2005). Literacy and the visual: Broadening our vision. English Teaching: Practice and Critique, 4(1), 6-19
  • Callow, J. (2008). Show Me: Principles for Assessing students’ visual literacy. The Reading Teacher, 61(8), 616-626
  • Callow, J., Hunter, D., & Walsh, T. (2006). Visual Literacy. In Fair Go Team (Eds.), School is for me: Pathways to student engagement (pp. 33-38). Sydney: NSW Dept. of Education and Training
  • Collins, L. (2007). Banksy was here. The New Yorker, May 14. Accessed July, 2008.
  • Grossman, L. (2007). Top 10 Graphic Novels. Time. Retrieved July, 2008 from,30583,1686204_1686244_1692006,00.html
  • Jacobson, S., Colón, E., Kean, T. H., Hamilton, L., & National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. (2006). The 9/11 report: A graphic adaptation (1st ed.). New York: Hill and Wang.
  • Learning and Teaching Scotland. (2008). Graphic novels across the curriculum. Retrieved July, 2008, from
  • Manderino, M. (2007, November). Integrating the Visual: Strategies for student synthesis. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the National Reading Conference, Austin, TX.
  • National Park Service. (2008). Ellis Island Immigration Museum. Retrieved July, 2008, from
  • New Jersey Dept. of Education. (2004). New Jersey Core Curriculum Content Standards. Trenton, N.J: New Jersey Department of Education.
  • Sacco, J. (2001). Safe area Goraézde. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books.
  • Schwarz, G. (2004). Graphic Novels: Multiple Cultures and Multiple Literacies. Thinking Classroom, 5(4), 17
  • Spiegelman, A. (1986). Maus: A survivor’s tale. New York: Pantheon Books.
  • Tan, S. (2006). The arrival. South Melbourne: Lothian Books.
  • Wineburg, S. S. (1991). Historical problem solving: A study of the cognitive processes used in evaluation of documentary and pictorial evidence. Journal of Educational Psychology 83(1), 73-87.


Artworks and Images cited

  • Banksy (Artist). (2008). Flower Chucker, Ink and Stencil. Acknowledgment is made to the artist and website
  • Levick, E., (1906). Immigrants on an Atlantic Liner [Photographic print]. Selected Images of Ellis Island and Immigration, ca. 1880-1920, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-11202. Public Domain.
  • Nolan, Sidney, Kelly in the Bush. 1945. Unsigned, Ripolin on strawboard 63.6 x 76 cm. Acknowledgement is made to the Nolan Gallery, Lanyon, Tharwa Drive, ACT 2620 Australia under the auspices of the public use for educational and research purposes statement at
  • Roberts, Tom, Opening of the first parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia H.R.H. the Duke of Cornwall and York, (later H.M. King George V) 
May 9, 1901 (1903). Oil on canvas, 304.5 x 509.2 cm. This photograph of the artwork is from Wikimedia Commons. It is in the public domain, as detailed at