Traditionally there has been a disconnect between television and learning. However, for all the negative aspects of television, especially as it pertains to education, I have found it on more than one occasion to be an excellent source of inspiration for the classroom. Recently I found myself watching seasons of the AMC program, Mad Men because of my wife’s crush on the Don Draper character. I quickly began to enjoy the program for its plot, written content and acting, but found myself wondering why so many women (my wife, her friends and others I assume) were enamored with Don Draper (for those unfamiliar with the show, Mad Men is set in 1960s New York, and follows the lives of the ruthless and competitive men and women in the Madison Avenue advertising industry). At the end of the first season, I arrived at the conclusion that it was confidence, more than anything that made this fictional character such a magnet. Admittedly, there are other factors, but the confidence resonates in the well-crafted script when Draper says, “You are the product. You—feeling something. That’s what sells. Not them. Not sex. They can’t do what we do and they hate us for it.” Those lines that were delivered with an “I know what I am talking about flair” inspired me. I wanted my students to speak with that same confidence about their writing.
Art and Artistic Writing
Aspiring to make persuasive writing more attractive to my students, I put together lessons that addressed this genre through art. Understanding the artistic manipulation of words that advertisers employ while crafting slogans and catchphrases was the biggest challenge of this unit and I felt the use of creative analogy fit well with Fine Arts. Woven into the tapestry of the English language, and often used in advertising, is wordplay—a strategy that is foreign to ESL learners and young students. I wanted to focus my students’ attention on this writing technique.
Individually selected idioms, coupled with the artistic style of Van Gogh embodied our first task. Students researched an idiom, after being provided with pertinent background information around literal and figurative meaning. Then they painted Van Gogh inspired paintings. Outlined in black, the idioms were emblazoned across the front of their artwork with the layered texture of Van Gogh whisking the eye away from the initial point of focus. Supporting the painting was a research-based reflection that explained how students had painted the literal meaning of their phrase, and also elaborated on their understanding of the figurative nature of these adages.
A second project utilizing How Much Can a Bare Bear Bear? by Brian P. Cleary came next. This book of outlandish sentences using homophones and homonyms has simple illustrations easily mimicked with a pastel medium. Learning how word sound and meaning can be manipulated in a humorous way prepared students for critical examination of advertising.
Listening and Questioning
For me, at the heart of research around inquiry-based learning is the distinction between information being transmitted by a teacher and students actively constructing their own meaning. Much research and literature support this pedagogy, but perhaps most influential in the planning of this unit was the 2000 study by the American National Reading Panel in which it was stated that creating their own questions was one of seven effective ways for increasing understanding of material for students with difficulty comprehending. Questioning was integral in three of the seven axioms.
Consequently, in an atmosphere of active listening, questioning and rebuttal, my students examined advertisements from both print and television media with a critical eye. Arriving at their own criteria through discussion, students applied their rubric to the creative work of others under the guiding question of, “Is this an effective advertisement?” Providing evidence, challenging, and most of all questioning, students assessed and ranked many advertisements before ever beginning their own.
A key resource for this portion of study was Teaching about Historical Thinking by Mike Denos and Roland Case, part of a series of books that use quality literature and historic reflection to help students arrive at their own criteria, and then assess other works.
White Lies and Audience
Having critically assessed print and video advertisements, it was easy to return to a few selections to develop a frame of reference for students as they began to craft their own persuasion. A tourism commercial for California featuring celebrities, beautiful vistas and figurative language enticed further analysis. The students had enjoyed the commentary and video segments in this advertisement, making it an easy choice to pique interest.
Discussion began with, “What do you know about California after watching this commercial?” Students eagerly contributed responses, but eventually realized they knew little about the state, and what they did know was only positive. This is the white lie. Really it is not a lie at all, but rather an omission of anything negative. Learning to look at advertisements and promotions with a critical eye was an important lesson.
After quickly researching Phil Mickelson and Lance Armstrong, and already knowing Mickey and Minnie Mouse, another trick of the trade is revealed: celebrity endorsements. The fact that people on TV might be influencing their thoughts is a considerable concept for a nine-year-old to digest, so I usually end this lesson with an additional query, “What channel do you think this commercial should be on?” This question frames the discussion for the next, and leads to a lesson around writing to your audience.
Show Me What You Know and Tell Me What I Should Know
Students were interested in the strategic and almost “tricky” nature of persuasive writing, and excited about making final products in which they snap their own photographs and create their own thirty-second spots using iMovie. I had before me, a motivated group of nine-year-olds. In a lesson using Critical Challenges for Primary Students by Tami McDiarmid, Rita Manzo and Trish Musselle, students created and worked with criteria for a quality photo. Moving forward with this knowledge, students crafted a print advertisement including a slogan, an image they took on a digital camera and a persuasive paragraph to support the image and catchphrase. The theme of the commercial was persuading parents to attend our school. The academic focus of this project was threefold. First, students self-evaluated their digital images using our criteria. Secondly, writing artistically, students attempted to use a play on words while creating a slogan for our school like, “Brentwood School: We are more than just pencil pushers” (Mitchell R). Finally, students’ writing focused on audience appropriate vocabulary, selection of persuasive points, and format of the paragraph. Using Apple’s Pages software insured attractive, professional looking advertisements that allowed all students to move forward with confidence.
Connecting the beauty of Alberta with our study of fine arts and physical geography, my students created thirty-second commercials in which they crafted artistic and persuasive words, selected beautiful images and wrote slogans that established a theme. For example:
Enjoy the evergreen magnificence (image of an evergreen forest)
Discover the wonders of the inhabitants (image of a Black Bear)
Uncover the terrain (aerial image of river and trees)
Observe the majestic waters (image of a river and lake)
Venture in the endless greenery (image of a trail into the forest)
Unearth your passionate side in the Boreal Forest (sunset image) (Yi Nuo C)
Choosing appropriate background music, and timing images with prose were the final touches. The result was a series of commercials that eclipsed the teacher model and impressed with a combination of art, social studies and persuasive writing.
The final products focused on positive aspects through omission, and dazzled with beautiful images, but most of all told the audience only what the student-author thought they should know. My students became confident artists, thinking critically and reasoning based on audience and aesthetics, all while omitting and including based on their own learning and understanding. One student explains what she learned in this way:
Advertising is the art of persuasion, which includes having a persuasive paragraph, a slogan and a picture. When writing a slogan, you can use a play on words. It helps the audience to remember your advertisement. For example, the class saw an advertisement and the slogan was, “Keep your coins, I want change.” Change is a play on words because it has two meanings. One meaning is that the man in the picture wants change, like when you get money from the store when you pay extra. Another meaning is that the man wants change to his life, like getting a job or buying shelter. You can also be simple in your slogan, but your picture must make the audience do some critical thinking or make them emotional. – Christine P.
A new, more responsible group of mad men and women, in the making?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joel Neilson is currently completing his fifth year at Brentwood School in Calgary, AB where he teaches grade four.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s May/June 2011 issue.